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There Was A Master Story Teller (Remembering Chinua Achebe)

Thursday 25 April 2013

By Francis Wache

CameroonPostline.com — His novels span the historical tapestry of his country, Nigeria. Beginning with Things Fall Apart, a novel that recaptured the colonial era, Chinua Achebe depicted Okonkwo, the protagonist, who valiantly fought against the colonialists. Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s debut novel (1958) is said to have sold 10 million copies. It has also been translated into 50 languages, a phenomenal literary feat.

Then, sequentially (not chronologically), came Arrow of God which, in a sense, pursued the clash of cultures between Winterbottom, the colonialist and Ezeulu, the colonised, who, truculently, tells a messenger from the colonial master to go and tell his boss “to eat shit.” Achebe was not only obsessed with the Whiteman and his destructive influence on the natives. He soon tackled his homeland that was keeling towards self-destruction. Indeed, Nigeria, as the title of one of his novels proclaimed, had fallen asunder and the country was No Longer at Ease. As Nigerian politicians bickered and dabbled, Achebe was hurt. He felt bemused by the political tomfoolery. He wrote the novel titled, A Man of the People, a caustic critique of a band of self-seeking political brigands, who, to the novelist, were toying with the destiny of the fatherland.

Widely hailed as the “Father of modern African Literature” (a sobriquet coined by Nadine Gordimer, the South African Nobel Laureate) Achebe strode the African literary scene as a colossus. Other admirers of this literary icon went as far as referring to him as the “Pope of African Literature”. This captures the reverence - even adulation - with which he was regarded in certain circles.

Nigeria reeled from one military dictatorship to another. Achebe did what he did best: he picked his pen and dissected the malady in a book he titled “The Trouble with Nigeria”. What, to Achebe, was the trouble with Nigeria? He retorted with excoriating bluntness: "The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership…Nigeria is dirty, callous, noisy, ostentatious, dishonest and vulgar. In short it is among the most unpleasant places on earth."

The authorities tried to assuage his angst by offering him the highest honour in Nigeria. Achebe declined.

He fled from the cauldron and settled in the United States. Achebe suffered a debilitating blow when, after a 1990 car accident, he was left crippled from the waist down and was compelled to a wheelchair. His literary activity suffered. In his early school days, Achebe was known as “Dictionary” because of his huge word power which he built thanks to his voracious reading.

He wrote Things Fall Apart, his most popular novel, after he had graduated from the University of Ibadan - the tropical version of the University of London – and was working at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, again, another tropical version – that of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Throughout his life, Achebe had scathing remarks about his country’s rulership. Achebe was implacable in his searing attacks against Nigeria’s leaders. He lambasted them at one point as: ‘‘A small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom.’’

Achebe was also an acerbic critic of the early Western fiction that depicted Africans as savages, vandals and cannibals who needed redeeming. He exhorted his fellow writers to debunk the myth because, as he put it, “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter." Achebe was convinced that a virile African literature could counteract Western stereotypes.

Besides his own writing, Achebe contributed tremendously in the growth and blossoming of African writing, especially when he served as an editor for Heinemann’s “African Writers Series”. It was through Heinemann that African literary giants like Mongo Beti, Ngugi wa Thiongo and Nadine Gordimer – to name just these - were exposed.

Chinua, Achebe, the literary luminary, died at 82. He had, since the 90s, been living and working in the United States. Before his death, he was a Professor at Brown University in Rhode Island. Born on November 16, 1930 at Ogidi, Nigeria, in Anambra State, Nigeria, Achebe did his primary and secondary studies in his native village before pursuing higher studies at the renowned University of Ibadan.

Today, African literature is bereaved but there is hope as Achebe nurtured many disciples who are likely to step in and fill the vacuum. His disciples only have to read the seminal book he wrote on African Literature - Morning Yet on Creation Day. Last year, Achebe published his last book, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, a testament of sorts, in which he narrates his experiences during the Biafran war of secession (1967-70). The book sparked and is still generating rabid controversy.

After his death was announced, Nigerian streets are said to have been flooded with vendors hawking pirated copies of There Was a Country…Talking about Achebe’s literary impact on him while incarcerated at Robben Island, the legendary Mandela said¬ Achebe is "the writer in whose company the prison walls came down…he brought Africa to the rest of the world"

Sadly, despite his prodigious publications, Achebe never won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the epitome of literary recognition. Now he is dead. Maybe as one admirer suggested after learning of the wordsmith’s passing, they could consider giving him that award - posthumously. "Since men have learnt to shoot without missing, birds have also learnt to fly without perching"

"A toad never walks in the daylight for nothing"

First published in the Post print edition no 01419

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