Prominent Igbo (Ibo) writer, famous for his novels describing the effects of Western customs and values on traditional African society. Achebe’s satire and his keen ear for spoken language have made him one of the most highly esteemed African writers in English. In 1990 Achebe was paralyzed from the waist down in a serious car accident.
“I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I 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” (from Morning Yet on Creation Day, 1975)
Chinua Achebe was born in Ogidi, Nigeria, the son of a teacher in a missionary school. His parents, though they installed in him many of the values of their traditional Igbo culture, were devout evangelical Protestants and christened him Albert after Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. In 1944 Achebe attended Government College in Umuahia. Like other major Nigerian writers including Wole Soyinka, Elechi Amadi, John Okigbo, John Pepper Clark, and Cole Omotso, he was also educated at the University College of Ibadan, where he studied English, history and theology. At the university Achebe rejected his British name and took his indigenous name Chinua. In 1953 he graduated with a BA. Before joining the Nigerian Broadcasting Company in Lagos in 1954 he travelled in Africa and America, and worked for a short time as a teacher. In the 1960s he was the director of External Services in charge of the Voice of Nigeria.
During the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70) Achebe was in the Biafran government service, and then taught at US and Nigerian universities. Achebe’s writings from this period reflect his deep personal disappointment with what Nigeria became since independence.
In 1967 Achebe cofounded a publishing company at Enugu with his friend, the poet Christopher Okigbo, who was killed during the Nigerian Civil War. Achebe was appointed research fellow at the University of Nigeria, and after serving as professor of English, he retired in 1981. Since 1985, Achebe has been a professor emeritus. From 1971 he has edited Okike, the leading journal of Nigerian new writing. He has also held the post of Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. There he met James Baldwin, also a faculty member, who was Professor of African studies at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, and Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of the Council at Anambra State University of Technology, Enugu. In the1990s Acgebe was a faculty member at Bard College, a liberal arts school, where he has taught literature to undergraduates. An automobile accident on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway in 1990 left Achebe confined to a wheelchair, permanently.
Achebe’s first novel, THINGS FALL APART, appeared in 1958. The story of a traditional village “big man” Okonkwo, and his downfall has been translated into some 50 languages. It was followed two year later by NO LONGER AT EASE, and ARROW OF GOD (1964), which concerned traditional Igbo life as it clashed with colonial powers in the form of missionaries and colonial government. Among Achebe’s later works is ANTHILLS OF THE SAVANNAH (1987), a polyvocal story with multiple narrators. Set in an imaginary West African state, its central character is Sam, a Sandhurst-trained military officer, who has become President. Chris Oriko and Ikem Osodi, his friends, die when resisting brutal abuse of power. A military coup eliminates Sam. Beatrice Okah – Chris’s London-educated girl friend – is entrusted with her community of women to return the political sanity.
Things Fall Apart (1958), an unsentimental novel, depicts the life of Okonkwo, ambitious and powerful leader of an Igbo community, who counts on physical strength and courage. Okonkwo’s life is good: his compound is large, he has no troubles with his wives, his garden grows yams, and he is respected by his fellow villagers. When Okonkwo accidentally kills a clansman, he is banished from the village for seven years. But the vehicle for his downfall is his blindness to circumstances and the missionary church, which brings with it the new authority of the British District Commissioner. The story is set in the 1890s, when missionaries and colonial government made its intrusion into Igbo society. In this process Okonkwo is destroyed, because his unwillingness to change set him apart from the community and he is fighting alone against colonialism. Achebe took the title of the book from William Butler Yates’s The Second Coming – “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
A Man of the People (1966) is a satire of corruption, and power struggles in an African state in the 1960s. The central characters are the Minister of Culture, Nanga, the man of the people, and teacher Odili, an African Lucky Jim, who tells the story. Odili stands against the government, but not because of ideological reasons. He has personal interests: Nanga has seduced his girl friend. Their political confrontation becomes violent, Nanga’s thugs inflict havoc and chaos, and the army responds by staging a coup.
Achebe has also written collections of short stories, poetry, and several books for juvenile readers. His essays include BEWARE, SOUL BROTHER (1971), about his experiences during the Civil War. He has received a Margaret Wrong Prize, the New Statesman Jock Campbell Prize, the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, and the 2007 Man Booker International award. In 1983, upon the death of Mallan Aminu Kano, Achebe was elected deputy national president of the People’s Redemption Party. As the director of Heineman Educational Books in Nigeria, he has encouraged and published the work of dozens of African writers. He founded in 1984 the bilingual magazine Uwa ndi Igbo, a valuable source for Igbo studies.
Achebe’s own literary language is standard English blended with pidgin, Igbo vocabulary, proverbs, images and speech patterns. Achebe shows his skills as a storyteller in ‘The Madman’ in which the social customs of the Ibo-speaking people are strongly present. In the richly layered narrative a nameless madman gets his revenge. Nwibe, an honored member of a distant town Ogbu, plans to go to the market. There in the market he had once chased a madman out of his hut and sent his children to throw stones at him. As he washes by the river, the madman takes his cloth. Nwibe runs naked after him, shouting ‘Stop the madman.’ The thief with the cloth disappears in the crowd, and Nwibe is taken to a medicine-man, but he has lost his social position. “For how could a man be the same again of whom witnesses from all the lands of Olu and Igbo have once reported that they saw today a fine, hefty man in his prime, stark naked, tearing through the crowds to answer the call of the market-place. Such a man is marked forever.”
As an essayist Achebe has gained fame with his collections MORNING YET ON CREATION DAY (1975), HOPES AND IMPEDIMENTS (1988) and his long essay THE TROUBLE WITH NIGERIA (1983). In ‘An Image of Africa’ (1975) Achebe criticizes Conrad’s racism in Heart of Darkness. He has defended the use of the English language in the production of African fiction, insisting that the African novelist has an obligation to educate, and has attacked European critics who have failed to understand African literature on its own terms. Achebe has defined himself as a cultural nationalist with a revolutionary mission “to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement.” But Achebe has not stopped criticizing postcolonial African leaders who have pillaged economies. During the military dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha he left Nigeria several times. When the 70th birthday of the patriarch of the modern African novel was celebrated at Bard College, on November 2000, Wole Soyinka said: “Achebe never hesitates to lay blame for the woes of the African continent squarely where it belongs.”
Arrow of God (1994) is set in the 1920s. The central character is Ezeulu, priest, who sends one of his sons to missionary school and gains in some respect the approval of the English district superintendent. However, Ezeulu is doomed, because when defending the traditions of his people he is unyielding, unable to reach a compromise, and afraid of losing his authority.
For further reading: The Writings of Chinua Achebe by G.D. Killam (1977); Chinua AchebeChinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart by Kate Turkington (1977); Achebe’s World by Robert Wren (1980); Achebe and the Dilemma of Nigerian Intellectual by Ian Gleen (1983); Chinua Achebe by David Carroll (1990); Chinua Achebe by I.L. Innes (1990); In the Beginning: Chinua Achebe at Work by Ada Ugah (1990); Critical Approaches to Anthills of the Savannah, ed. by Holger Ehling (1991); Reading Chinua Achebe by Simon Gikandi (1991); Chinua Achebe by Umelo Ojinmah (1991); Chinua Achebe: A Celebration, ed. by Kirsten Holt Peterson and Anna Rutheford (1991); Chinua Achebe: A Biography by Ezenwa-Ohaeton (1997) – NOTE: During the Nigerian Civil War – see above – Biafra’s national anthem was based on Jean Sibelius’s Finlandia. Sibelius, Finnish composer, wrote the orchestral work in 1900.
- Things fall apart, 1958 – films: bullfrog in the sun (1972), dir. by hans jÃ¼rgen pohland
- Â No longer at ease, 1960Â
- The sacrificial egg and other stories, 1962
- arrow of god, 1964
- a man of the people, 1966 – Kansan mies (suom. eila pennanen)Â
- Chike and the river, 1966
- beware, soul brother, 1971
- girls at war, 1972
- how the leopard got his claws, 1972
- Christmas in Biafra and other poems, 1973
- morning yet on creation day, 1975
- the drum, 1977
- the flute, 1977
- literature and society, 1980
- the trouble with Nigeria, 1983
- the world of ogbanje, 1986
- anthills of the savanna, 1987 – short listed for the booker prize
- the university and the leadership factor in Nigerian politics, 1988Â
- hopes and impediments, 1989
- Nigerian topics, 1989 ed.: the Heinemann book of contemporary African short stories, 1992 (with c.l. innes)Â
- home and exile, 2000