Like many I am terribly saddened to hear about death of Chinua Achebe following a brief illness. One of Africa’s greatest writers, Achebe changed the perception and course of African literature with his first novel Things Fall Apart, published in 1958. Things Fall Apart told the story of Okonkwo, an Igbo warrior and his struggle to adapt to the changes the white men bring to his village. Initially, only 2000 copies were printed as the publishers were not expecting much from this unknown Nigerian novelist but to date it has sold more than 10 million copies around the world and has been published in 50 languages.
Every African schoolchild has read this novel. I remember reading a copy for the first time when in Ghana on holiday in 2003 and my nephew disdainfully pointing out that he read that “years ago” in school. I thought how lucky he was to have read such treasures at a young age and wished I could have had that same privilege. I came to reading African literature quite late and had limited experience of it other than the Anansi stories I was told of as a child. Chinua Achebe (and also our Ghanaian mother of literature, Ama Atta Aidoo) changed my reading habits. After reading Things Fall Apart and the sequels No Longer At Ease and Arrow of God, I discover authors who had more than likely been influenced by him, such as Buchi Emecheta, Ben Okri and of course Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who is quoted as saying ‘I would not be the writer I am if it wasn’t for Chinua Achebe’.
Achebe was also a political activist and a supporter of the Biafran secession from Nigeria, which he describes in his memoir There Was A Country. But after the civil war, that tore apart two nations, he became disillusioned politics, as he found that “the majority of people … were there for their own personal advancement”. He remained a vocal critic, however, of corrupt African leaders and politics, and appeared to never lose hope that some day Africa would once again rise and be free of the corruption that has hindered her progress.
Listening to Nadine Gordimer on Radio 4 this morning, she said echoing what Achebe said of his friend the writer Christopher Okigbo: “Don’t let him die”. Though Chinua Achebe is now no longer with us, his writing, his words, his legacy will always remain.
Here are a few of his best known quotes:
- “If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.”
- “Nobody can teach me who I am. You can describe parts of me, but who I am – and what I need – is something I have to find out myself.
- “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” – (Things Fall Apart)
- “We cannot trample upon the humanity of others without devaluing our own. The Igbo, always practical, put it concretely in their proverb Onye ji onye n’ani ji onwe ya: “He who will hold another down in the mud must stay in the mud to keep him down.” (The Education of a British-Protected Child:Essays)
- “When Suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat left for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own”
- “Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate that the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself.” (Things Fall Apart)