Chinua Achebe: A Tribute

Published on 29th March 2013

The late Chinua Achebe           P. courtesy
The acclaimed father of modern African literature, Chinua Achebe, died recently at age 82 after a brief illness in Boston, United States. His death marked the end of an era of literary renaissance that swept Africa from 1958 when he published his first and most famous book, Things Fall Apart. The book depicted an African perspective of the human consequences of colonization in Africa in the Southeastern part of Nigeria. Chinua Achebe’s immeasurable contribution to global and African literature can be easily seen from the front page report of his death in all major global newspapers and influential electronic media. 

As an individual who shares Chinua Achebe’s first name, I have always being amazed and astounded about his worldwide fame and how individuals from all walks of life have read his books. I am even more surprised about the number of younger generation of students all over the world, high school and undergraduate, who read Things Fall Apart and continue to follow his career, including his other notable books.

A slight, unhurried man of letters, Chinua Achebe was celebrated around the world during his lifetime for his genius as a writer and master essayist. His brevity of written and spoken words will always remain legendary. His ability to tell a story is without parallel, transporting one to distant native lands and immersing the reader in unfamiliar cultures and rituals. His power of storytelling become clearer if one is familiar with the background and context to his stories. I will never forget the night I first read Things Fall Apart as a teenager and immediately related to the background information in the book since my ancestral village in Nigeria is contiguous with Chinua Achebe’s village, Ogidi. Things Fall Apart had the same powerful influence on me as Kenneth Kaunda’s book, Zambia Shall Be Free; Peter Abrahams’ novel, Mine Boy; Camara Laye’s  novel, African Child, and; Wole Soyinka’s book, The Man Died.

As a celebrity, deeply respected around the world by leaders of government, captains of industry, erudite members of the academia and civil society rank and file, Chinua Achebe could have lived a life of vanity, banalities and inanities, cashing in his considerable fame. However, Chinua Achebe chose a life of personal moderation and moral clarity. He chose a life of fierce, independent, powerful voice for the voiceless, the marginalized, the disenfranchised and the poor. Chinua Achebe by the adroit use of the proverbial pen knew how to pierce deafening silences in corridors of power and how to breach innermost recesses of malfunctioning governance structures.

The man commanded extraordinary respect and affection. I remember how students at the University of Nigeria where he was then heading the African Institute in the early 1980s would pause and pay their respects whenever he drove by in his huge U.S. automobile. I am also reminded of how powerful men and women would queue up patiently to have a few words with him in public functions and on numerous award ceremonies dedicated to his work.

Chinua Achebe’s capability to speak truth to power, in my view, is as important as his widely known literary contributions. Chinua Achebe utilized his colossal global stature to call attention to issues he considered important. He spoke and wrote his mind on public issues regardless of possible consequences and discomfort among the elite.

His last book published last year, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra about the 1967-1970 Nigeria-Biafra war continues to evoke considerable controversy in Nigeria, especially in regards to who was responsible for hundreds of thousands of Biafra children that starved to death following blockade of humanitarian relief materials by the then Nigerian government. Despite being a committed supporter and ambassador of Biafra’s failed independence attempt, Chinua Achebe’s devotion to Nigeria's perpetual promise knew no bounds. He wrote eloquently on the extraordinary potential of his beloved country and bemoaned sustained periods of lackluster leadership and indifferent followers. He believed that Nigeria's future lies in resolving issues that threw up the civil war in the first place.

This fearlessness forced Chinua Achebe to move his precious immediate family multiple times, including extended self-imposed exile from his beloved Nigeria. He served as professor in various schools outside of Nigeria, including his last appointment as endowed university professor of African studies at Brown University in United States. He rejected high national honors from Nigeria due to his disagreement with the governments of the day on governance issues. He did not bend his views to win prestigious global awards. Chinua Achebe loved the truth so much that it probably set him free and contributed to his almost tranquil, serene disposition towards life.

His personal courage and tenacity became tested severely following the 1990 car crash in Nigeria which left him paralyzed. I remember subsequent furious medical battles to save his life and frantic efforts to transport him to better clinical facilities outside of Nigeria. The man fought and clung to dear life after the car crash, allowing subsequent move to better clinical and rehabilitative facilities abroad. Only someone of Chinua Achebe's inner strength and fortitude could have pulled off one of the most remarkable transitions after a tragic accident: publicly, he transitioned from a soft spoken, avuncular, charismatic personality to a still soft spoken, quietly charismatic and powerfully confident man of the world confined to a wheelchair. He bore his unforeseen mobility challenges with equanimity and regal bearing.

Albert Chinualumogu (his full African name) Achebe achieved in a lifetime what will take many of us, multiple lifetimes. He came, saw and conquered. He lived a full life. He liberated African literature, changed the dialogue about Africa and became one of the most famous public faces against poor governance in the continent. He inspired numerous famous African authors and writers as well as literary giants from other parts of the world. May God grant Chinua Achebe unqualified Mercies. May his beloved immediate Family find solace in a life well lived. May his millions of global brothers and sisters remain inspired by the work and life of one of the greatest global icons of our time.

Chinua Achebe, the quintessential unbowed, unruffled, majestic Iroko tree that dominated Africa's literary forest has gone home to a well-deserved final rest.

By Dr. Chinua Akukwe

The author [email protected]is the former Chairman of the Africa Center for Health and Human Security at George Washington University, Washington, DC. He is also the Chair of the Africa Working Group, the National Academy of Public Administration, Washington, DC. 

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