Chinua Achebe: Novelist and dissident whose work reclaimed Africa's history

 

Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author and dissident who has died at the age of 82, learnt early in life that words can lead to a lot of pain. It happened when he was at secondary school in colonial Nigeria. Turning to a fellow pupil, he asked in his native Igbo language: ''Nyefe M ncha ahu'' [pass me the soap]. For not using English, Achebe's English headmaster gave him a beating he remembered all his life.

Things Fall Apart, which must be the most widely-read African-authored novel of all time, tells the story of a Nigerian tribesman's downfall at the hand of the British. The novel, published two years before Nigeria's independence in 1960, set the tone for a literary and dissident life focused on reclaiming Africa's history and identity. It was published by Heinemann, with whom he later worked as editor of the visionary “African Writer Series'' that brought dozens of the continent's authors to international attention.

Lumumba Kadorko Dodo, head of drama at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, called Things Fall Apart an "epochal'' work that redefined the English-language literary landscape globally. ''It opened an important insight into the world of the oppressed,'' he said. ''Achebe lampooned, in a prophetic way, the post-independence crop of elites – and the present leadership – who, rather than engineer a revolution in the emergent modern African states we are in, allowed us to be sucked in by the vortex of neo-colonial exploitation and global consumerism with the result that Africa has been subjugated into an web of almost permanent underdevelopment.''

Born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe in the Igbo village of Ogidi in southeastern Nigeria, he was among five surviving children in a Christian evangelist family. In Achebe's early years, his Protestant Church Mission Society father, Isaiah, and mother, Janet, travelled across rural south-eastern Nigeria as preachers. Storytelling of the Biblical but also traditional Igbo varieties featured strongly in the young Achebe's life, as did discussions about the ''world views'' of Christianity versus traditional religion.

Achebe excelled at school, earning scholarships along the way. At the age of 14, he was admitted to Government College in Umuahia – created along elitist British public school lines to craft NIgeria's future ruling class. This was where Achebe was beaten for speaking Igbo at bath time and where, having gorged himself on the library's diet of Gulliver's Travels, David Copperfield and Treasure Island he said he learnt to take sides ”with the white characters against the savages“. He was classmates with the poet Christopher Okigbo, who later became a firm friend and whose death on the frontline during the Biafran war devastated Achebe.

At University College, Ibadan, Achebe published student life satires with playwright-to-be Wole Soyinka, and after graduation worked briefly as a teacher before joining the Nigerian Broadcasting Service in Lagos. His exposure to radio as a talks producer taught him to write vivid dialogue. He played a leading part in the development of broadcasting in Nigeria, setting up its international service, Voice of Nigeria.

Achebe said the Queen's tour of Nigeria in 1956 was a significant moment for him because it brought issues of colonialism and politics to the fore. The same year, a visit to Britain for a BBC training course crystallised the bedrock of Things Fall Apart, whose title is borrowed from WB Yeats' ”things fall apart; the centre cannot hold''.

Achebe called the novel an ''act of atonement'' for the abandonment of traditional culture. It became among the most influential books of the 20th century and has sold more than 8m copies. Much later, in an interview in 1976 with the Nigerian literary magazine Okike, Achebe described how he saw his mission: ''I am interested in doing something fundamentally important. I have avoided the pressure to get into the habit of one novel a year. This is what is expected of novelists. And I have never been really too much concerned with doing what is expected of novelists, or writers, or artists.''

He was a prolific writer but claimed that being a father and an Igbo were at least as important to him as literary fame. In 1961 he married Christie Okoli, with whom he had four children. While the family lived in Lagos he observed his children coming into contact with Anglocentric textbooks. This led directly to his publishing his first children's book, Chike and the River, in 1966.

Achebe's third novel, Arrow of God, was published in 1964 and explores the intersections of Igbo tradition and Christianity. Achebe also was a forceful critic of Western literature about Africa, especially Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which he considered racist. Both his second novel, A Man of the People, and No Longer at Ease were stories of corruption and collapse that anticipated the Nigerian civil war of 1967-70 and the years of mismanagement that followed.

He not only supported Biafra's independence, but was a government envoy and a member of a constitution-writing committee for the putative country. He fled from and returned to Nigeria many times and twice turned down a national gong – the Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic – in protest at the military's interference with government affairs. He never received the Nobel Literature Prize even though he was at least as deserving of it as Wole Soyinka, who received it in 1986.

On 22 March 1990, Achebe was being driven to Lagos with his son Ikechukwu when an axle collapsed and the car overturned. Ikechukwu and the driver suffered minor injuries but the weight of the vehicle fell on Achebe and his spine was damaged. He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, paralysed from the waist down, living in the US. When he died he was Professor of African studies at Brown University.

Albert Chinualumogu Achebe, writer and activist: born Ogidi, Nigeria Protectorate 16 November 1930; married 1961 Christie Okoli (four children); died Boston, Massachusetts 21 March 2013.

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