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Chinua Achebe – An appreciation

Billie McTernan
By Billie McTernan

Follow Billie McTernan as she covers the 2012 Ghanaian presidential and parliamentary elections. Billie writes on political and cultural affairs across the continent.

Posted on Saturday, 23 March 2013 11:41

In a writing style echoing traditional oral storytelling, Achebe intertwined English with Igbo.

His work was an inspiration for many younger African writers who saw Achebe giving a voice to the people on the continent, and reflecting their rich cultures.

The writer in whose company the prison walls came down – Nelson Mandela

Despite his celebrity as one of the world’s leading novelists, Achebe was highly selective about what literary awards he would accept.

Most recently, and to the frustration of officials in Abuja, he rejected an award from the Nigerian government.

That same government under President Goodluck Jonathan is now paying fullsome tribute to Achebe as one of Nigeria’s most distinguished cultural tribunes.

However, Achebe remained deeply critical of successive civilian and military regimes in Nigeria for their failure to provide an honest and committed leadership that could develop the country.

Born in 1930 in Ogidi in south-eastern Nigeria, Achebe grew up in a Christian household against a backdrop of traditional Igbo culture.

The overlap and antipathy of the two cultures would become a running theme in much of his writing.

In his seminal novel published in 1958, “Things Fall Apart”, Achebe highlighted the tribulations that communities faced under colonialism.

It was the first of five novels – including No Longer At Ease, Arrow of GodandA Man of the People – that charted Nigeria’s path from colonial rule to independent state with the promise to change the lives of millions within and beyond its borders.

Achebe said that his slight distance from his own Igbo culture and Christianity gave him a perspective on the two… “not a separation but a bringing together like the necessary backward step which a judicious viewer might take in order to see a canvas steadily and fully.”

In 1967, seven years after independence from British colonialism, civil war broke out over the attempted secession of Biafra east Igbo-speaking eastern Nigeria.

By the time the war ended in 1970 over a million had lost their lives. Until the end, Achebe was a strong supporter of self determination for Biafra.

Unafraid of controversy, Achebe wrote a memoir last year, There Was a Country, recounted the events that led up to the Biafran war.

But Achebe didn’t see the Biafran cause as a parochial cause but rather offering the possibility of liberation for all of Africa.

Almost 50 years earlier in 1968, he had said: “Biafra stands for the true independence of Africa, for an end to the 400 years of shame and humiliation that we have suffered in our association with Europe.”

Aside from writing novels, poems and essays such as the classic “The Trouble with Nigeria“, Achebe took up several academic posts at the University of Nigeria (Nsukka), Bard College in New York and finally as professor of Africana Studies at Brown University.

Students and statesmen alike have lauded Achebe’s contribution to African and world literature.

Younger writers said he was extraordinarily generous with his time and advice. Nelson Mandela said that Achebe’s work had a global importance and had “brought Africa to the rest of the world.”

Mandela, who read Achebe’s work during his incarceration as a political prisoner, described him as “the writer in whose company the prison walls came down.”

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