Achebe, an African Legacy

Achebe… The Eternal Echo

By Uduma Kalu

To many people of different times and places, Okonkwo, the hero of Achebes’s Things Fall apart is a character of diverse interpretations. During my first year in the Department of English, University of Nigeria, my lecturer in the course, Introduction to Nigerian Litrerature, Dr Nnadozie Inyama told us that Okonkwo as a character was revered by African school children in the Apartheid South Africa for his courage to confront a white man. This action, he said was a response to the deep seated hatred black South Africans had of the Apartheid regime and longed to dethrone it. Okonkwo in his fight against colonialism was thus an admired hero in that country. But Inyama described Okonkwo as a stock character who was predictable and could not adjust to new realities as round characters do. Hence, his inevitable downfall.
Eight years later, when Achebe visited home and gave a lecture at Owerri, he described Okonkwo as a simple minded fellow. But two years after Achebe made that declaration, a member of The Guardian editorial board, Paul Nwabuikwu expalined that James Balwin after reading TFA exclaimed in admiration of that character to Achebe:”That man was my gratherfather!”
Elsewhere, Dr Olu Oguibe, the critic, in an argument concerning Europhinism, was not happy with Achebe’s description of Okonkwo as simple minded saying that the author deliberately disowned him. To him, however, Okonkwo was resisting colonialism which was detrimental to African development.
Such have been the mutating portrayals of Okonkwo over the years. Some critics see him in the garb of feminism versus masculinism. Some see him as a role model who suceeded in times of want to become one of the leaders of the town. Still to some psychologists, he was a coward who though trying to run away from the weak traits of his father killed Ikemefuna because he did not want to be thought weak. Still he is regarded as a good emissary by some as one who made peace between Umuofia and Mbaino.
I wonder what other descriptions critics will today ascribe to Okonkowo these days, especially, now that America is leading an antiterrorism campaign. Ali Muzrui, in an essay recently wondered whether those who fought coloniasm in those days would not be described as terroists now. And I don’t know whether Okonkwo would soon be labelled as that.
It is difficult to describe Okonkwo in one sentence. His is an artistic portrayal of reality. He is like the mask carved by another Achebean character, Edogo, in Arrow of God, who would make a mask but would wander round the village square trying to get people’s reactions to that art work. In the end, there is no conclusive judgement by him.
Hate him, love him, Okonkwo remains the hero of Things fall apart; the man whose life story is the unfortunate burden of Africa and the colonial world in the late 19th and early 20th century. This the life of an individual which produced Things fall aprt, the book that shaped the future of modern African literature.
Things Fall apart, in a book by Heinamann, Celebrating 40 years of distinction in African publishing, the company said that “Things Fall apart has now sold over eight million copies and has been translated into 32 languages.” The sale figures do not include pirated copies which might outweigh or half the official figure.
When Chinua Achebe published Things Fall apart, he was only 28, and the novel, commentators remark, has done more for African literature than anything else since its publication. It produced a whole generation of younger writers who wanted to be like him and many who tried to write like him. But Achebe remains unique in the framing of those factors that distnguish his works.The novel is read in every continent; it is a compulsory choice for anyone seeking an introduction to African literature. It put the continent, Nigeria and the Igbo whom he writes about, in the world map. Former dean of the faculty of arts Professor Edith Ihekweazu of blessed memory after the international celebration of Achebe’s 60th titled Eagle on Iroko, wrote a piece called Celebrating Chinua Achebe in 1990 that” If we have taken advantage of Chinua Achebe as our flag-ship to attract the international participation we had, this just proves the point that artists are Nigeria’s most impressive ambassadors in the world and do serve all support and recognition at home.”
Another international birthday for Achebe in faraway United States brought together statements who either sent in their representatives, words, or were physically present. Nobel laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka summed up the awe that the literary world had for Achebe at the Bard College-organised 70th birthday anniversary which held between November 2-4, 2000, said in an anecdote-laced, review of the Images of Africa that he was seeing for the first time such an array of men of letters gathered under one roof to celebrate an icon.
Artists-black and whites and coloured-from all continents, Nobel laureates, up-coming writers crossed the seas to pay homage in gratitude and repect to Achebe.
Some of the guests included the ex-UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan. Kofi “personally and on behalf of the UN” praised Achebe’s “pioneering role in bringing African literature before a wider international readership”.
His terse statement presented by Ibrahim Gambrai, UN Under-Secretary General and special adviser on Africa to the UN also saluted Achebe’s “courageous public stand against many of the ills that afflict Africa today, and their first introduction to the continent.”
Former US president, Jimmy Carter was to symbolise Achebe’s influence beyond the black world. In a morning birthday letter read on his behalf, Carter testified to the inspiration which he and his family had drawn from Achebe’s books. While regretting his inability to attend the event, he described Achebe as “a personal hero to him as he is “to many around the world.”
Former South African president, Nelson Mandela, in the opening ceremony, revealed , via video greetings which was shown on a lifesized screen, how while in prison, he read Achebe’s TFA, No Longer at Ease, “and whatever of his works I could get.”
He stated further :” I found that Achebe’s fearless honesty in picturing the life of his countrymen and women under colonial rule met the perhaps just as dangerous test as uncompromising in a post-colonial regime, and even through the harzards of a tragic civil war that, earlier on, marred freedom”.
Mandela also praised Achebe’s visionary power, noting that his 1966 novel, A Man of the People, “foresaw thirty years ahead, the examples of things that threaten some of Africa’s heroically-won democraries of today…The people of South Africa celebrate, as I do with everyone present, the 70th birthday of the brilliant writer and man of Africa who has found those new ways, freed us, with his great gifts, from the past.”
He continued:” Chinua Achebe is a world renowned writer of great achievement, a founder of modern African literature. He has lived in many countries of the world. He comes from the more than 10 million Igbo people of Nigeria, one pf the major peoples of Africa. He has written of them that in any assembly ‘each speaks his own mouth’ as they phrase it. Chinua Achebe ‘speaks with the mouth of Africa and enriches all humanlty, free at last of those stock situations and characters that have dominated European writing about Africa for hundred years.”
Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, through his then culture minister, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, noted that “the story of Achebe is the story of the unfathomable possibilities of africa, the cradle of human civilisation, and more specifically, Nigeria, the land of the birth of the author of TFA. It is a story that offers hints of of extraordinary excellence in a continent of profound unhappy memories. It is a story of hope, of redemption and or restoration “tying that hope” to “what the new democratic experience in Nigeria is all about.”
Mandela’s statement was folowed by Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Laureate from South Africa, Nadine Gordimer, who could not be there because of her husband was indisposed. Toni Morrison, the African American Nobel Laureate was to add that pioneering efforts of Achebe was the tonic that pushed those in the diaspora to do that which could be significant, yet very universal. While Nurudeen Farah celebrated Achebe’s humility and humanity. Soyinka recalled Achebe who being an unencumbered master of the word, the pacesetter of another kind, wrote “the watershed of of African literature-TFA.” He went on to recall Achebe’s sense of humour, one of which was when Achebe would ask his students who was the greatest African writer? The answer, “Soyinka”. “And which was his greatest work?” to which the students would answer”TFA”.
There were other goodwill messages from Ali Mazrui, Anthony Appiah, Chinweizu, Obiechina, Niyi Osundare, Isidore Okpewho, Tess Onwueme and so many others.
But Achebe’s contribution did not start and end with TFA. Forty years ago, writing from Africa was unheard of outside of the continent. Alan Hill, managing director of Heinamann Eduacational Books in his autobiography, In Pursuit of Publishing, explains that in 1959, British publishers operating within West Africa sold mainly textbooks and regarded the territory as a place you sold books, not a source for new writers.
The books sold were almost written by British authors and produced in Great Britain. It was unusual at that time that an educational publisher could publish fiction. Every publisher wanted to know the direction of the education in the region. They wanted to keep to standards. Sales followed the prescriptions for examinations and class adoptions.
But something was happening on the continent which made it important for Africans to tell their own story. The late fifties marked an important era in Africa and its preoccupation with the struggle for idependence from colonial rule. Ghana was the first African country to gain independence in 1957. Nigeria soon followed. these newly independent countries depended entirely on European modes and systems of Education. The curricula were fashioned on European models and tradition.
Yet Africa, after independence, wanted to replace European educational literature with liiterature about Africans by Africans. The newly established universities in Ibadan, Legon and Makerere became the source from which ripples were spread out across the whole of Africa.
This was the period which saw the development of and advancement of the publication of African literature. This made Hill, after publishing Achebe’s TFA visit Nigeria in 1959 with expectations that he would be praised for publishing the classic novel which was written in long hand under lamplight. Hill noted that “Everywhere I was greeted by total scepticism that a recent student of the University of Ibadan should have written a novel of any significance at all.”
There was that feeling that an African could not have reached the standards of a renowed London publishing house.
With this independence feeling in the air, Heinamann decided to float an African series, called African Writers Series. It has been argued that it was this nationalistic feeling that brought the series into international acclaim. But the heart of the matter was the pioneering role Achebe played in the series that saw the books becoming international texts.
In November 1962, Achebe accepted an invitation to become the first editorial adviser to the series. His role was crucial, Heinamann noted, as “his own work was of unquestionable exellence. He was endlessly generous to new writers. Above all he was determined that the series published the very best writing from Africa. His name,was, as Alan Hill has said, ‘A magnet which attracted people to the Series’.
It continued; “Three factors played a major role in alerting western readers to the quality of contemporary African writing. Firstly, there was the practical contribution of Chinua Achebe as the Founding Editor and suceedinmg African Editors of the series attracted African writers and thirdly, the generation of dedicated and passionate publishers or as, James Currey prefers to call them, ‘loyalists’ who have kept the series going against all odds.”
James Currey recalled Achebe’s role at the Series thus:”I was struck by the quiet confidence of both Achebe and Keith Sambrook. They knew what they wanted. They were setting new standards. They did not know what the standards were, but they would emerge out of the manuscripts they were offered.’
But Achebe knew what he wanted . He wanted the series to reflect all the richness and variety of an emrginging independent Africa. He was concerned with the widest literary criteria. All these had to be supported by sales of comparable titles and reports by readers.
The central challeges for Achebe was to find a place for African writers in an education company publishing texts for an educational place for African writers.
At the historic Makerere meeting of 1963 a Kenyan student knocked on Chinua Achebe’s door to show him two manuscripts of novels.
Achebe was impressed and accepted the novels. The name of the young man was Ngugi. The crucial decision had been taken. New titles were to be first given publication in the AWS. New titles by new authors were to be published, and the AWS was born.
The exam boards were still based in Oxford, Cambridge, London, Durham. However, in the years following independence, examination boards were set up: The West Africa Examinations Council for Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia and Sierra Leone and the East African Examinations Council for Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
The newly established examination boards delighted in the raiding the AWS to prescribe texts. In this regard, they were far more adventurous than the English boards who considered Gerald Manley Hopkins a modern poet. The examiners even came to use texts in translation for English.
From 1962 till date, the series, though highly shrunk, has become the largest publishing house that publishes African litertature in the world, expanding even to the Carribean, just as other publishing houses such as Penguin have borrowed AWS classical style for the publication of its own African classics.
It has published hundreds of best of literature for forty yerars. It has works translated from Arabic, like Tayeb Salih’s The Wedding of Zein, French, such as Mongo Beti, Oyono and Sembene among others who had already published several novels. Between 1972 and 1984, the series published 270 titles feeding Africans with new writings of its people and giving them hope of publication. It led to flowering of women writing as well. It is the only series that has three times produced African winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. They are the late Naguib Mahfouz from Egypt, Nadine Gordimer from South Africa and Wole Soyinka from Nigeria. It has gone on to win other prestigeous awards including the Commonwealth Wrters Prize, The NOMA Award for African Writing, The Caine Prize for African Writing and The Guardian Fiction Prize. It introduced readers to a new aspect of publishing-Prison Writing, as the disillusionment of the new independent states brought along it sad accounts of the undemocratic regimes. Some of them included Jack Mapanje, Dennis Brutus, Nelson Mandela and of course, Steve Biko. The series, in the words of Heinamann management, “is now established as the cannonical series of African literature, an internationally recognised classic series for African study.”
Alan Hill notes that”probably, the most significant achievement of the series was to alter the perception of Africa and its people.” The world owes that literary growth, honour and awards and scholarship to Achebe.
Achebe, in the eyes of critics, such as Charles Nnolim in Trends in the Nigerian Novel published in Matatu, Vol. 2, No.1 (January, 1987), assert also that Achebe is the inaugurated the African novel-“that tradition which is concerned with cultural assertion or cultural nationalism which stresses and promotes the innate dignity of the black man and makes creative use of our myth, legends, ritual, festivals, ceremonies and foklore.
Achebe is the pioner of what is authentic and indigenoeus in the african novel. His novels that are set in traditional igbo land-TFA and Arrow of God- are referred by Charles Larson as both “the archeytypal” African novel and the “situational” novel. He described the archetypal novel as one descrbes the impact of of the coming of the Europeans on African societies and the disintegration of such societies as a consequence, while the situational novel presents a group-felt experience, so that whatever happens to the major representative character, the final result is felt by all the people involved in the story. The individual thus becomes identified with the community and acts as that society’s consciousness.
What is therefore considered great and enduring in the African novel-for he established that tradition which promotes awareness of what is really great and dignified in our culture, salted with the lilt of our proverbs and local expressive mannerisms, imbued with the charm of our folkways, the respect for our ancerstors and the beauty of our traditions and culture, plus the rehabitation of the black man whose dignity has been bruised and damamged by the white man, Nnolim continued.
Achebe’s vision, wrote Chairman of The Guardian Editiorial Board, Dr Reuben Abati in The Guardian opinion page of Friday, November 17, 2000, entitiled Chinua Achebe, is essentially tragic, created out of the misery of the environment. His characters are remembered for their roundedness, their sheer theatricality and psychological strenght. For example, Okonkwo in TFA is already an established international along with Ezeulu and Nanga of A man of the people .
Their individual struggles, Abati went on, find correspondence in every man’s encounter with imps and history at the crossroads of survival. Achebe’s writings, others argue, are not tied to quotidian reality, for he had always considred creative writing of a higher grade than journalism, rather he is interested in deeper causes, the underlying variables of the African experience including the class between the old and the new, the need to validate the dignity of the African cultrure, fate and circumstances resulting in a psychological exploration of man as social and religous as well as a cultural self- expression.
“Achebe is unique in his sensitivity to language and the strivings of man. He is at once a teacher, sculptor and master craftman, carving the stories of our lives. In his hands, the craft of narration becomes a ritaul, a spiritual encounter, a journey into the outer limits of human imagination. His characters leap off the pages as they respond to the ritual of being, they draw our lives into theirs in a prolonged moment of empathy, signposting the very scope of human possiblities,” Abati maintained.
History is important to Achebe as much as culture, society and traditions. He conceives of history as an interconnected chain, with man of action at the centre of a whirlpool. His ideal writer is both a teacher and a man of action, and in his own career, Achebe has live up to that description. In his famous essay, The Novelist as Teacher, published in 1965, Achebe writes: “The writer cannot expect to be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done. In fact, he should march right in front…I for one would not wish to be excused. I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especiually those set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past-with all its imperfections-was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them. Perhaps what I write is applied art as distinct from pure art. But who cares? Art is important and so is education of the kind I have in mind.”
A similar sentiment is in the work by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffits, Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back. In another Achebe’s early essay, Africa and her writers where he stressed that the principal feature which differentiated African artist from their European counterparts was that they privileged the social function of writing over the function as a tool of individual expression. They created myths and legends, and told their stories for ‘a human purpose (including, no doubt, the excitation of wonder and pure delight)’, and they made their sculptures to serve the needs of their times. They ‘moved and had their being in soceity, created their works for the good of that society’.
Achebe’s sentiments at this time were also endorsed by other writers such as Soyika.
In a way, this attidude, Ashcroft etal argued, shaped the work of most of African writers in the sixties and the seventies. Its influence can be seen in nearly all the general accounts of the period, despite their ideological differences. Critics of that time such as Awoonor, Palmer, Nazareth, Obiechina, Ogungbesan, Gakwandi, all stressed the need to see African literature in relationship to the society which produced it, and to understand the unique characters and function of art in Africa.
The impulse to recover African cultural context for the new texts generated a vigorous and persistent debate in African literature between the demand for a recognition of the Africanness of literature and the rejection of universal readings. This was provoked by the praise of European and American critics such as Larson and Mahood for those African works which addressed ‘universal audience’ by avoiding what they called barriers to intelligebility. But African critics pointed out that such universality refuses a non-local readership to come to terms with the need to understand the work from within its own cultural context. Achebe summed up the feeling of the time in his seminal essay on ‘Colonialist Criticism: ‘I should like to see the word universal banned altogether from discussions of African literature untill such a time as people cease to use it as a synonym for the narrow, self-serving parochialism of Europe.’
This cultural resistance has continued in such projects aimed at the ‘decolonization’ of African culture, and the desire to return to pre-colonial languages and cultural modes as championed by Chinwizu, Jemie and Madubuike, the trioka of critics who called themselves bolekaja critics and the subsequent literary debate that ensued between Soyinka, the trioka and others.
Achebe has continued to have a tremendous influence among new African writers. In a review in Wasafiri, Okey Ndibe’s novel, Arrows of rain, a recent publication by a new Nigerian writer is described as ‘… continues with courage and expertise the story masterfully begun by his elders Tutuola, Achebe and Soyinka more than fifty years ago. This new engagement is characterised by questions about responsibility and transparency and the need to bear witness; to be the custodian of stories which must be told by the younger generation of writers.
Achebe, reputed to have made the largest contributrion to African literature till date founded Okike based at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. That journal which aims at promoting new creative writing from Africa and elsewhere is presently edited by Prof Ossie Enekwe, and it still survives even when similar ventures have become victims of Africa’s harsh economic condition. Achebe also edited African Commentary
In 1981, Achebe founded the Association of Nigerian Authors, a platform he felt Nigerian writers needed for their welfare and their craft. Outside the continent, he co-founded the New York State Writers’ Institute. Achebe’s latest novel, Anthills of the Savannah, was published in 1987, more than twenty years after A man of the People (1966). Altogether, he has written five novels. He has written essays, the latest being Home and Exile. He has written poetry and children’s stories. He has won several Nigerian and internatioinal literary awards including Nigerian highest intellectual prize, the National Merit Award, Creative Art Prize worth a million naira, Margaret Wrong Memorial Prize, the Nigerian National Trophy for Literature, the Commonwealth prize, the New Statesman Hock Campbell Award, German Peace Prize, fellowships, scholarships, grants, over 40 honourary doctorates from unversities all over the world.
Achebe is not just an artist. He used to be a statesmen. For instance, during the Nigerian civil war, he sided with Biafra and was actively involved at the information section that his exploits are still remembered till date. During that war, he said he would apply his ink to fight for humanity and to exclusively entertain. His confrontation with military rule led to his long self- exile. His political contribution was to blossom in the words of Banji Ojewale, a journalist, in his piece, The Trouble with Chinua Achebe, on the June 12 presidential election annulled, and the subsequent regime of late miltary dictator, General Sanni Abacha. He hurled devastating salvos at Babangida for the nullification of the elections and called for the installation of Moshood Abiola, winner of that election as president. He would not bulge when Abacha came in, denouncing the new setting, asked for the Abiola mandate to be validated.
So much was Achebe’s influence and impact that Abacha prevented him from coming home. Shortly after returning home Achebe spoke of the perils which this political stance had exposed him to: “If the military were in power, I shouldn’t have expected my life to be easy.”
He was to team up with fellow writers like Wole Soyinka and John Pepper Clark to plead for the life of soldier-poet, Mamman Vasta who was sentenced to death over alleged coup attempt.
In the second republic, Achebe was politically active. He joined Aminu Kano’s radical PRP along with soyinka. Their intervention added muscule to the discourse of the day.
Later in 1993, Achebe was to write his first major political treatise, The Trouble with Nigeria. A slim work but quite explosive, with scathing remark on the successive leadership of the country. He located Nigeria’s history of devilry in her cycle of leaders. He spoke of a “golden era” that awaited Nigeria once “we can free our minds from their(our old political leaders’) unwholesome spell…”
His contribution to the welfare of the Africa continues. At a meeting of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and development (OECD) in Paris in 1989, he told the financial experts that they were discussing Africa’s problem in terms of theories, such as the structural adjustment programme even though the experiment was a monumental failure in Africa. He told the conference that “Africa is not fiction. Africa is people, real people.”
He told the distinguished Merit award panel that development is people which invloves an interaction of both science and the arts, and not at the expense of the other as the Nigerian government was and is still is giving priority attention to the sciences at the neglect of the arts.
It is no wonder that Achebe is currently ambassador to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities(UNFPA). German Booksellers’ Association, in recognition of his role to humanity, announced him winner of its annual Peace Prize. Worth €15,000, Achebe received the prize at a ceremony on October 13 during the annual book fair in Frankfurt.
The citation said that Achebe’s central concern was “the restoration of peace in regions exposed to a permanent cultural conflict.”
The statement described him also as the “father of post colonial Africa literature”.
Later, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as a Foreign Fellow. He is also a foreign fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters.
Described as the “the most prominent writer in Africa today”, Achebe whose Anthills… was shortlisted for the Booker Prize was listed among world’s greatest 100 artists, in a statement entitled Centurions, the only black African in the list by The British Broadcasting Corporation.
That was not the first time Achebe was named one of the most significant artists in the world.
in 1999, some foreign media named him one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. His name has been featured by other organisations as a great author of the century and several web sites have been created on his life and works.
The Zimbabwe International Book Fair also named him one of the top twelve authors of the century. Achebe was voted one of the 100 writers of all time by the Norwegian Book Clubs. He is the Charles O. Stevenson Professor of Literature at Bard College, New York, US.
Born in Anambra state in November 16, 1930, in Ogidi, Nigeria, to Igbo Christian parents, he started his education at a church missionary society school. But as a young boy, he had ample opportunity to observe a traditional village life that” hadn’t been completely disorganised by British rule. He graduated from the University College, Ibadan, in 1953. Then, he worked for ten years for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation.
Achebe left it in 1966 partly as a result of the political conflicts which would lead to civil war in 1967 and eventlly for a career in writing and teaching . In 1954 -59, Achebe was Regional Controller, Enugu Broadcasting Service and between 1959 and 1961 was Director, Voice of Nigeria , Lagos 1966. He was appointed Senior Research Fellow, University of Nigeria, Nsukka ( UNN) between 1967- 72; Professor of English, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA, Professor, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut, USA, Professor of English, Nsukka since 1985.

Achebe has held editorial and directorship positions in several publishing houses, journals and magazine, including Heinemann Educational Books, Nsukkascape and Okike of which he was founding editor. He was between 1981-84 president, Association of Nigeria Authors (ANA) and belongs to many literary, art and culture organisations. He was Chairman, Board of FRCN in 1988; Governor, Jews Concern International Foundation. Achebe is fellow of several literary organisations, winner of many literary awards and national honours, including Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria National Merit Award. He was to reject the second national honour to him by the federal government for what he described as the deterioration in Nigeria under President olusegun Obasanjo’s watch. He is in Jamaica, talking, as usual, for all Africans to unite.

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2 Responses to “Achebe, an African Legacy”

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  2. satishraju Says:

    It is informative indded, i am a research scholar from india, i opted chinua Achebe’s novels as my research topic. I have been trying to or struggling to understand the meaning of Situational novel. Would you please simplify the term to me. I am planning to write a chapter in my doctoral degree on it. I read it in Essays of African literature, that situational means the main character actions being felt by rest of the characters in the novel. Please explain this too.

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