The history of the development and growth of the Nigerian society can never be complete without the mention of Chinua Achebe, unarguably one of the best writers and literary masters to have come out of Nigeria, Africa and even the Black Race.
Chinua Achebe announced himself on the global stage in 1958 with his first and most famous novel, Things Fall Apart, just two years before Nigeria gained her independence from Britain. When I first read Things Fall Apart as a teenager, it was just another Nigerian literary piece, especially considering the fact that it was not the first I read. It was not until later that I understood the significance of the book and the influence it had on African and world literature.
Things Fall Aparti s considered to be the first modern African novel and taught Africans to tell their own story. Prior to that, the worldview of Africans was shaped by what people outside Africa wrote about us. Chinua Achebe changed all that when he wrote his masterpiece, describing the clash of his Igbo ethnic group with the arrival of the white colonialists. It gave Africans an identity, and gave Igbo people, and even those not of the ethnic group, a strong sense of identity. The book went on to sell over 100 million copies, translations into more than 50 languages, adopted into the Literature syllabi of many educational systems and a TV series adaptation.
That seminal work of his birthed modern African literature, which was institutionalized by the African Writers’ Series published by Heinemann, which Achebe was the founding editor and went on to edit from 1962 to 1972. The African Writers’ Series published a generation of the best African writers, from the South African Peter Abrahams, to NgugiwaThiong’o of Kenya, to Leopold Senghor of Senegal. It practically shaped and grew African literature in its time.
Achebe went on to write30 works, composed of 5 novels, 8 short stories, 6 poetry books, 4 children’s books and 8 essays, political commentary and non-fiction books. His books were brilliant critiques of the Nigerian society and political system, ranging from No Longer at Ease, in which the protagonist, Obi Okonkwo, a British-educated young man joins the civil service as a principled man, but ends up succumbing to corruption due to the pressures around him, to The Trouble with Nigeria, his brilliant 1984 political commentary about Nigeria inspired by the 1983 elections, in which he famously concluded that “the trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.”
His last published work, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, published last year was one in which the literary icon broke his 42-year silence about the Nigerian Civil War, when his Igbo ethnic group had attempted to secede from Nigeria, and a war that cost about 2 million lives, mostly on the Igbo side. It brought back the talk of the war to centre stage, and wounds that had been previously ignored as though they did not exist were paid attention to. As the emotive debates raged on across the country about who was wrong and who was not, it brought the realization that for far too long, Nigeria and Nigerians have attempted to bury an event as epochal as the Nigerian Civil War, forgetting that it altered the lives of millions of people and of a nation. Looking back, it also ensured that the great Chinua Achebe bowed out of this world firmly in our consciousness.
Chinua Achebe was a writer who constantly stirred a nation’s consciousness, even without writing books. His rejection of a national honour in 2004 as a protest towards the indifference of the Obasanjo administration to the anarchy being wrought upon his home state – Anambra, made us to realize that the national honours had become all but honourable. It was the start of the decline of a once much-coveted piece of recognition. Sadly, the Jonathan administration, apparently not having learnt from its predecessor, decided to award the sage another award, albeit a higher one, in the hopes he would accept it. He turned it down too.
Chinua Achebe has gone, leaving shoes too large for anyone to fill. Matter of fact, in the words of one commentator, he left with his shoes.
There are men whose greatness is debated. But there are some others whose greatness cannot be argued by any. Chinua Achebe was one such man.
The Iroko Has Fallen!
This piece was contributed by Mark Amaza. Follow him on twitter at @amasonic