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.

News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
musicReview: 1989's songs attempt to encapsulate dramatic emotional change in a few striking lines
News
Mario Balotelli has been accused of 'threateningly' telling a woman to stop photographing his Ferrari
peoplePolice investigate claim Balotelli acted 'threateningly' towards a woman photographing his Ferrari
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Voices
Don’t try this at home: DIY has now fallen out of favour
voicesNick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of it
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Sport
Phil Jones (left) attempts to stop the progress of West Bromwich Albion’s James Morrison on Monday
I'm not worried about United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Arts and Entertainment
Saw point: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Serena’
filmReview: Serena is a strangely dour and downbeat affair
Life and Style
The Zinger Double Down King, which is a bun-less burger released in Korea
food + drinkKFC unveils breadless meat beast
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Computer Science Teacher required

£7200 - £36000 per annum: Randstad Education Nottingham: We are currently recr...

Teaching Assistant Plymouth

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: TEACHING ASSISTANTS NEEDED FOR PLYMOU...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Nursery Assistant/Nurse all cheshire areas

£7 per hour: Randstad Education Cheshire: We are a large and successful recrui...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker