Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who died on Friday at the age of 82, is widely seen as the grandfather of modern African literature.
From the publication of his fi rst novel, Things Fall Apart, over 50 years ago, Achebe shaped an understanding of Africa from an African perspective more than any other author.
As a novelist, poet, broadcaster and lecturer, Achebe was a yardstick against which generations of African writers have been judged. For children across Africa, his books have for decades been an eyeopening introduction to the power of literature.
Describing Achebe as a “colossus of African writing”, South African President Jacob Zuma expressed sadness at his death. Nelson Mandela, who read Achebe’s work in jail, has called him a writer “in whose company the prison walls fell down.”
Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, told of his Igbo ethnic group’s fatal brush with British colonisers in the 1800s — the first time the story of European colonialism had been told from an African viewpoint to an international audience.
The book was translated into 50 languages and has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.
He later turned his sights on the devastation wrought to Nigeria and Africa by military coups and entrenched dictatorship. Anthills of the Savannah, published in 1987, is set after a coup in a fictional African country, where power has corrupted and state brutality silenced all but the most courageous.
The pain at Achebe’s death was felt across Nigeria and particularly in the southeast homeland of the Igbos. “Our whole household is crying out in grief,” a cousin and traditional chief, Uba Onubon, from Ikenga village said.
Born at Ogidi in southeast Nigeria on November 16, 1930, Achebe was the son of a Christian evangelist. He went to mission schools and to University College, Ibadan and taught briefly before joining the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, where he was director of external broadcasting from 1961 to 1966.
When his homeland broke away from Nigeria in a disastrous bid for independence, Achebe launched a publishing company in Enugu, capital of the self-declared republic of Biafra. After the war, which cost a million lives along with Biafra’s hopes of statehood, Achebe returned to Enugu to teach at the nearby Nsukka University.
In 1972, he moved to Massachusetts and since then spent much of his time in the US, with occasional spells in Nigeria. His last post was at Brown University in Rhode Island.
Through tears, former government minister and friend Dora Akunyili said Achebe’s death “leaves a void in Nigeria, Africa and globally.”
Although Achebe never won the Nobel literature prize like fellow Nigerian, Wole Soyinka, his works won praise for their vivid portrayal of African realities and their accessibility for all readers.
His contribution was recognised when he won The Man Booker International Prize in 2007.
He never hesitated to turn harsh words on his home country, publishing a pamphlet in 1983, The Trouble With Nigeria, criticising its corruption and condemning it as “dirty, callous, noisy, ostentatious, dishonest and vulgar.
In short, it is among the most unpleasant places on earth. “The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility,” he wrote, words which chimed with the feelings of many Nigerians.
In 2004, he turned down the title ‘Commander of the Federal Republic’ offered to him by then President Olusegun Obasanjo, replying that he was appalled by the cliques who had turned Nigeria into “a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom”.
Undaunted, President Goodluck Jonathan also tried to confer a national honour on him in 2011. He snubbed that one too.
A car accident put Achebe in a wheelchair in 1990 and he wrote no books for more than 20 years. His last, There Was a Country was a deeply personal account, in prose and poetry, of the horrors of the 1967-70 Biafra war, lifting decades of silence on the loss of friends, family and countrymen that forever shaped his life.