Chinua Achebe has passed on. Since the news broke on social media there have been more than enough news items carrying this sad story to mean that it is true.
My memory betrays me on the regular, but one anecdote I remember reading about Achebe was his recollection of the reaction of some Korean readers to Things Fall Apart. These readers resonated with Okonkwo’s plight due to their own history of war and subjugation. The reason behind my use of this incident is simple: it’s not the Igbo, Nigeria or even Africa that has lost an icon; Achebe is a global phenomenon. If the world is a forest, then one of the biggest baobab trees was uprooted today. Still, as an African I will talk from my perspective.
Most people refer to Things Fall Apart and I will do same: for generations like mine which are two (or three) times removed from political independence, it might be difficult to understand the impact of this novel on the African consciousness. Thus it is important to contextualize. Achebe wrote the novel primarily in reaction to a colonial official – I forget his name (blame my memory again) who made racist assertions about the African’s inability to produce literary work. Achebe spoke to those assertions in very mature ways. While other literary artistes would later on succumb to portraying Africa as an idealistic place, he presented Igbo culture in all its good and bad. Another thing he did was to introduce a plethora of Igbo words into the novel. These words did not necessarily supplement English: they rather implicitly highlighted the shortcomings of the imperialist language as not being versatile enough to cater for Igbo concepts. This is something we might take for granted today but at the time it had immense implications on how Africans viewed their own languages. The fact that today (to a certain extent), we can take some of these achievements in a non-serious manner speaks to the effect that the likes of Achebe have had. As the first major African novel, he raised the standard high and blazed the trail until today.
Of course, Achebe was much more than his first novel. Aside short story collections, poems, plays and other novels he was a prominent theoretician. His agenda behind using Igbo words in Things Fall Apart informed his later argument with Ngugi about using English to produce African literature. Achebe was of the opinion that English was here to stay so it was the best option to appropriate it in local ways – Africanize it, if you will. He also wrote a thought-provoking essay on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and theorized extensively on the postcolonial condition. His role in the Biafra War spoke to his passion for his culture, and his last work captured those moments brilliantly. He was also critical of the problems that plague contemporary African leadership, and it is hoped that his views will continue to carry on even as he has passed on.
If dissertations, books and conferences have been written and organized on this great man then a blog post cannot begin to adequately honor him. I will therefore end with one of his quotes. He was heavily invested in the use of literature as a didactic tool for improving life in general, and he wanted subsequent generations to continue with the struggle. It is therefore heartwarming that the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have taken up the mantle. Anyways, back to the quote. This is taken from Anthills of the Savannah, his last novel (written in 1987) – “The story … saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather, it is the story that owns us.”
May he walk well.