Let’s take some time out to review the life of one of the greatest writers in Africa, Chinua Achebe.
We’ll review his biography, works and what made him a great success.
Chinua Achebe’s Early Life and Educational Background
Chinua Achebe was born in Eastern Nigeria on (November 16, 1930), to Isaiah and Janet Achebe, who christened their son Albert Chinualamogu.
Isaiah Okafor Achebe was a catechist for the Church Missionary Society, and he and his wife traveled Eastern Nigeria as evangelists before settling in Ogidi, Isaiah’s ancestral Igbo village, five years after Chinua Achebe’s birth.
Growing up in Ogidi, Achebe had contact with both Christian and Igbo Traditional beliefs and customs.
Achebe’s first lessons were taught in Igbo at the church school in Ogidi. He began to learn English at the age of eight. An avid reader and an outstanding student, Achebe was selected at fourteen to attend Government College, a highly selective secondary school in Umuahia, where one of his classmates was the poet Christopher Okigbo. Upon graduation.
Achebe accepted a scholarship to study medicine at University College in lbadan, but after one year decided to switch to the study of English literature, forfeiting his scholarship. With the financial assistance of his older brother John, he was able to continue his studies.
Achebe and the Yoruba playwright Wole Soyinka, who were to become Nigeria’s best known authors, were undergraduates together at University College and published their first work in undergraduate publications.
“Polar Undergraduate” (1950), a satire of student behavior that was later collected in Girls at War and Other Stories (1 972), was Achebe’s first published fiction.
In his third year, Achebe became editor of the University Herald. After his graduation in 1953, Achebe took a position as Talks Producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC).
Chinua Achbe’s Things Fall Apart
In 1958 Achebe published Things Fall Apart which won him the Margaret Wrong Memorial Prize for the novel’s contribution to African literature. In 1960, the year of Nigeria’s independence, Achebe published No Longer at Ease and was awarded the Nigerian National Trophy for Literature.
Achebe spent the remainder of 1960 and part of 1961 traveling through East Africa, interviewing other African writers.
After his return to Nigeria he married Christie Chinwe Okoli, with whom he was to have four children, and was appointed Director of External Broadcasting for NBC.
In 1962, Chinua Achebe became the founding editor of Heinemann’s African Writers Series, and in 1963, he traveled in the United States, Brazil, and Britain on a UNESCO fellowship. Achebe published Arrow of God in 1964 and was honored with the Jack Campbell New Statesman Award for his accomplishment. His publication of the prophetic A Man of the People (1966) was followed by successive military coups, massacres of Igbos, and the secession of Biafra in 1967.
Achebe was forced to leave Lagos after the second coup, and during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70) he became a spokesperson for the Biafran cause in Europe and North America. He also served as a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka which was renamed the University of Biafra during the war.
After three years of bitter struggle, Biafra surrendered, and Achebe, more dedicated than ever to the preservation of Igbo culture, began editing Okike: An African Journal of New Writing.
He published his literary response to the war in Beware Soul Brother (1971) and Girls at War and Other Stories (1972), winning the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1972 for Beware Soul Brother, which was published in the United States as Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems (1 973).
From 1972 to 1976, Achebe taught in the United States at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where his wife earned a doctorate, and the University of Connecticut. After the 1976 assassination of Murtala Muhammed, for whom Achebe had great respect, the author returned to teach at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka.
In 1979, Achebe was elected Chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors and received the Nigerian National Merit Award and the Order of the Federal Republic. In 1982, he and Obiora Udechukwu edited Aka Weta, an anthology of “egwu” verse.
Disillusioned by President Shehu Shagari’s failure to fight the corruption that was impoverishing Nigeria and saddened by the death of Mallam Aminu Kano, the leader of the People’s Redemption Party, Achebe served as Deputy National President of the PRP in the election year of 1983.
In The Trouble with Nigeria (1983), he presented his political prescription for improving Nigeria.
After Shagari’s reelection and removal from office by a subsequent military coup, Achebe once again concentrated his energies on artistic and cultural projects, editing the bilingual Uwa ndi lgbo: a Journal of Igbo Life and Culture. In 1986, Achebe was appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the State University of Anambra at Enugu.
The following year, Achebe published his first novel in twenty years, Anthills of the Savannah (1987) and returned to teach in the United States at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, the City College of New York, and Bard College. In 1988, he published Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, 1965-87
Chinua Achebe’s Teaching and producing
While he meditated on his possible career paths, Achebe was visited by a friend from the university, who convinced him to apply for an English teaching position at the Merchants of Light school at Oba. It was a ramshackle institution with a crumbling infrastructure and a meagre library; the school was built on what the residents called “bad bush” – a section of land thought to be tainted by unfriendly spirits Later, in Things Fall Apart, Achebe describes a similar area called the “evil forest”, where the Christian missionaries are given a place to build their church.
As a teacher he urged his students to read extensively and be original in their work.
The students did not have access to the newspapers he had read as a student, so Achebe made his own available in the classroom. He taught in Oba for four months, but when an opportunity arose in 1954 to work for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS), he left the school and moved to Lagos.
The NBS, a radio network started in 1933 by the colonial government, assigned Achebe to the Talks Department, preparing scripts for oral delivery. This helped him master the subtle nuances between written and spoken language, a skill that helped him later to write realistic dialogue.
The city of Lagos also made a significant impression on him. A huge conurbation, the city teemed with recent migrants from the rural villages. Achebe revelled in the social and political activity around him and later drew upon his experiences when describing the city in his 1960 novel No Longer at Ease.
While in Lagos, Achebe started work on a novel. This was challenging, since very little African fiction had been written in English, although Amos Tutuola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) and Cyprian Ekwensi’s People of the City (1954) were notable exceptions.
While appreciating Ekwensi’s work, Achebe worked hard to develop his own style, even as he pioneered the creation of the Nigerian novel itself. A visit to Nigeria by Queen Elizabeth II in 1956 brought issues of colonialism and politics to the surface, and was a significant moment for Achebe.
Also in 1956 he was selected at the Staff School run by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). His first trip outside Nigeria was an opportunity to advance his technical production skills, and to solicit feedback on his novel (which was later split into two books).
In London, he met a novelist named Gilbert Phelps, to whom he offered the manuscript. Phelps responded with great enthusiasm, asking Achebe if he could show it to his editor and publishers. Achebe declined, insisting that it needed more work.
Chinua Achebe’s Work Credit
Things fall Apart was Published in the year 1958. A violent opponent of colonialism’s threat to traditional Igbo culture is destroyed by his failure to adapt to change.
Things Fall Apart tells the tragic story of Okonkwo, who, determined to overcome the example of his lazy and imprudent father, elevates himself to a position of respect in the lgbo community of Umuofia through acts of strength, courage, and endurance.
Unfortunately, Okonkwo’s obsessive fear of failure makes him a humorless and short-tempered man whose pride and violence undercut his reputation in the community. By erasing the effeminate from his character, Okonkwo makes himself into a man who is unable to fully enjoy his success, and by focusing for so long on his individual struggle to be successful, he distances himself from the communal life of Umuofia.
When Okonkwo accidentally kills a young boy, his clansmen destroy his compound and exile him to live with his mother’s kinsmen for seven years.
By the end of his exile, Okonkwo, who had earlier been known for his self-interest, has learned to appreciate the bonds of kinship and the comfort of speaking with one voice. Unfortunately, this awareness comes after the unity of Igbo culture has begun to break down. Christianity has divided the community, and Okonkwo senses that this change threatens his connection to his family, his culture, and his spiritual existence after death.
His eldest son’s conversion to Christianity separates Okonkwo from his lineage, and when another young convert to Christianity desecrates a traditional religious totem, Okonkwo leads the Umuofians who destroy the missionaries’s church. Like Okonkwo, the Umuofians face separation from their past, and like him they face a future that will require difficult compromises; yet, Achebe carefully shows that the decentralization and nonhierarchical structure of Igbo society allows for change.
Okonkwo’s greatest flaw is his inability to adapt to cultural change. He is humiliated that Umuofia does no rise in his support and go to war against the white man. In a final desperate act, he murders the District Commissioner’s messenger and hangs himself.
At the end of the novel, Okonkwo stands alone, a self-proclaimed defender of a rigid traditionalism that contradicts the true flexibility of his culture. He is an exceptional individual, but the heroism of his final act of defiance is undercut by his alienation from his clan.
Achebe does not understand that Umuofia is a living culture that has always adapted in order to meet new challenges. His effort to deny the reality of history condemns him while making a sad comment on the limitations of human endeavor.
The novel dramatizes the situation of modern men and modern societies that are forced to adapt and compromise if they wish to survive. Its central theme, and the central theme of all of Achebe’s novels, is the tragedy of the man or society that refuses or is unable to accommodate change.
In Things Fall Apart, Achebe effectively counters the persistent and self-serving European stereotypes of African culture, particularly the notion that traditional African cultures are authoritarian, amoral, and unsophisticated. In refutation of this stereotype, Achebe carefully describes the complexity and fluidity of Igbo culture, disclosing its essential pluralism.
It is, however, a society that cannot survive unaltered in a modern world. Like Yeats’s “Second Coming,” from which the novel takes its title, Things Fall Apart presents an ironic and apocalyptic vision of the failure to maintain order and balance.
No Longer At Ease
The Novel “No Longer At Ease” was Published in the year 1960. An idealistic, young Nigerian bureaucrat, trapped between his traditional background and his European education, succumbs to the corrupting influences of government service.
No Longer at Ease opens and closes at the bribery trial of Obi Okonkwo, a young civil servant in the colonial Nigerian government and the grandson of the Okonkwo of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
The novel provides a retrospective look at Obi’s progress from the remote village of Umuofia to an English university and then to a position with the Nigerian Civil Service in Lagos, where he finally succumbs to the prevalent practice of bribery and is caught.
Like a diminished version of his grandfather, Obi is crushed by cultural forces beyond his control, but the pettiness and ineptitude of his crime make him a paradoxical tragicomic hero. His innocence makes him a criminal; his coveted education does not provide him with wisdom; the support of his clansmen increases his sense of loneliness.
Obi is the first from his village to receive a European education, and his expenses are paid by clansmen who hope to enhance the status of their village and to reap future economic dividends. Obi’s life, however, is complicated by idealistic romance and his failure to manage his finances.
He falls in love with a woman who is osu, marked by a traditional, hereditary taboo. Obi rejects the taboo as primitive superstition, but his naive determination to be thoroughly modern places him in direct conflict with his family and his clan.
At first he eschews the customary practice of accepting bribes, self-righteously viewing it as an anachronistic behavior that the new generation of educated and idealistic civil servants will eradicate, but his obligation to repay the clan and his determination to maintain a lifestyle commensurate with his position as a civil servant eventually lead him to accept payments.
When he does give in to custom, he handles the bribery so amateurishly that he is caught and convicted.
Obi has been shaped by the traditional lgbo culture of Umuofia, the Christianity of his father, the idealism of English literature, and the corrupt sophistication of Lagos, but he is at ease nowhere. As a child in Umuofia, he dreams of the sparkling lights of Lagos. In England, he writes pastoral visions of an idealized Nigeria.
Disillusioned by the corruption of Lagos, he returns to his home village only to witness a lorry driver attempting to bribe a policeman and to be greeted by his parent’s rejection of his proposed marriage. Obi naively tries to maintain the idea of his own integrity as a detribalized, rational, thoroughly modern man, but his reintegration into Nigeria is a failure because he is unable to assimilate successfully any of the competing cultures he passes through. He finds it impossible to mediate the conflicting duties that are thrust upon him, and his steady progress in the novel is toward despair and withdrawal.
No Longer at Ease is set on the verge of Nigeria’s independence in Lagos, an urban jungle which combines the worst of European and African cultures. Centralization has led to inefficiency and corruption; traditional Igbo communalism has devolved to the narrow pursuit of advantage.
Having learned the western desire for material goods without having sufficient income to satisfy them, the nation, like Obi, must choose between corruption and bankruptcy. It is therefore fitting that Achebe’s title is drawn from Yeats”‘Sailing to Byzantium,” for like the wise men in Eliot’s poem, Obi and the nation are trapped between two eras. As Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart stands for the vanishing traditional African, Obi in No Longer at Ease stands for the vanishing idealist in a world of compromise.
Chinua Achebe’s Marriage and family
In the same year Things Fall Apart was published, Achebe was promoted at the NBS and put in charge of the network’s eastern region coverage.
He moved to Enugu and began to work on his administrative duties. There he met a woman named Christiana Chinwe (Christie) Okoli, who had grown up in the area and joined the NBS staff when he arrived.
They first conversed when she brought to his attention a pay discrepancy; a friend of hers found that, although they had been hired simultaneously, Christie had been rated lower and offered a lower wage. Sent to the hospital for an appendectomy soon after, she was pleasantly surprised when Achebe visited her with gifts and magazines.
Achebe and Okoli grew closer in the following years, and on 10 September 1961 they were married in the Chapel of Resurrection on the campus of the University of Ibadan.
Christie Achebe has described their marriage as one of trust and mutual understanding; some tension arose early in their union, due to conflicts about attention and communication. However, as their relationship matured, husband and wife made efforts to adapt to one another.
Their first child, a daughter named Chinelo, was born on 11 July 1962. They had a son, Ikechukwu, on 3 December 1964, and another boy named Chidi, on 24 May 1967.
When the children began attending school in Lagos, their parents became worried about the world view – especially with regard to race – expressed at the school, especially through the mostly white teachers and books that presented a prejudiced view of African life. In 1966, Achebe published his first children’s book, Chike and the River, to address some of these concerns.
After the Biafran War, the Achebes had another daughter on 7 March 1970, named Nwando. When asked about his family Achebe stated: “There are few things more important than my family.” They have six grandchildren: Chochi, Chino, Chidera, C.J. (Chinua Jr.), Nnamdi and Zeal.
Chinua Achebe and Nigeria-Biafra War
In May 1967, the southeastern region of Nigeria broke away to form the Republic of Biafra; in July the Nigerian military attacked to suppress what it considered an unlawful rebellion.
Achebe’s colleague, Christopher Okigbo, who had become a close friend of the family (especially of Achebe’s son, young Ikechukwu), volunteered to join the secessionist army while simultaneously working at the press. Achebe’s house was bombed one afternoon; Christie had taken the children to visit her sick mother, so the only victims were his books and papers.
The Achebe family narrowly escaped disaster several times during the war. Five days later, Christopher Okigbo was killed on the war’s front line. Achebe was shaken considerably by the loss; in 1971 he wrote “Dirge for Okigbo”, originally in the Igbo language but later translated to English.
As the war intensified, the Achebe family was forced to leave Enugu for the Biafran capital of Aba. As the turmoil closed in, he continued to write, but most of his creative work during the war took the form of poetry. The shorter format was a consequence of living in a war zone.
“I can write poetry,” he said, “something short, intense more in keeping with my mood … All this is creating in the context of our struggle.” Many of these poems were collected in his 1971 book Beware, Soul Brother. One of his most famous, “Refugee Mother and Child”, spoke to the suffering and loss that surrounded him. Dedicated to the promise of Biafra, he accepted a request to serve as foreign ambassador, refusing an invitation from the Program of African Studies at Northwestern University in the US.
Achebe traveled to many cities in Europe, including London, where he continued his work with the African Writers Series project at Heinemann.
During the war, relations between writers in Nigeria and Biafra were strained. Achebe and John Pepper Clark had a tense confrontation in London over their respective support for opposing sides of the conflict.
Achebe demanded that the publisher withdraw the dedication of A Man of the People he had given to Clark. Years later, their friendship healed and the dedication was restored.
Meanwhile, their contemporary Wole Soyinka was imprisoned for meeting with Biafran officials, and spent two years in jail. Speaking in 1968, Achebe said: “I find the Nigerian situation untenable. If I had been a Nigerian, I think I would have been in the same situation as Wole Soyinka is – in prison.”
The Nigerian government, under the leadership of General Yakubu Gowon, was backed by the British government; the two nations enjoyed a vigorous trade partnership. Addressing the causes of the war in 1968, Achebe lashed out at the Nigerian political and military forces that had forced Biafra to secede. He framed the conflict in terms of the country’s colonial past.
The writer in Nigeria, he said, “found that the independence his country was supposed to have won was totally without content … The old white master was still in power. He had got himself a bunch of black stooges to do his dirty work for a commission.”
Conditions in Biafra worsened as the war continued. In September 1968, the city of Aba fell to the Nigerian military and Achebe once again moved his family, this time to Umuahia, where the Biafran government had also relocated.
He was chosen to chair the newly formed National Guidance Committee, charged with the task of drafting principles and ideas for the post-war era.
In 1969, the group completed a document entitled The Principles of the Biafran Revolution, later released as The Ahiara Declaration.
In October of the same year, Achebe joined writers Cyprian Ekwensi and Gabriel Okara for a tour of the United States to raise awareness about the dire situation in Biafra. They visited thirty college campuses and conducted countless interviews.
While in the southern US, Achebe learned for the first time of the Igbo Landing, a true story of a group of Igbo captives who drowned themselves in 1803 – rather than endure the brutality of slavery – after surviving through the Middle Passage.
Although the group was well received by students and faculty, Achebe was “shocked” by the harsh racist attitude toward Africa he saw in the US. At the end of the tour, he said that “world policy is absolutely ruthless and unfeeling”.
The beginning of 1970 saw the end of the state of Biafra. On 12 January, the military surrendered to Nigeria, and Achebe returned with his family to Ogidi, where their home had been destroyed. He took a job at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka and immersed himself once again in academia. He was unable to accept invitations to other countries, however, because the Nigerian government revoked his passport due to his support for Biafra.
Chinua Achebe’s Heritage
Achebe has been called “the father of modern African writing” and Africa’s greatest storyteller, and many books and essays have been written about his work over the past fifty years. In 1992 he became the first living writer to be represented in the Everyman’s Library collection published by Alfred A. Knopf.
His 60th birthday was celebrated at the University of Nigeria by “an international Who’s Who in African Literature”. One observer noted: “Nothing like it had ever happened before in African literature anywhere on the continent.”
Achebe provided a “blueprint” for African writers of succeeding generations. In 1982, he was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Kent.
At the ceremony, professor Robert Gibson said that the Nigerian writer “is now revered as Master by the younger generation of African writers and it is to him they regularly turn for counsel and inspiration.” Even outside of Africa, his impact resonates strongly in literary circles. Novelist Margaret Atwood called him “a magical writer – one of the greatest of the twentieth century”.
Poet Maya Angelou lauded Things Fall Apart as a book wherein “all readers meet their brothers, sisters, parents and friends and themselves along Nigerian roads”.
Nelson Mandela, recalling his time as a political prisoner, once referred to Achebe as a writer “in whose company the prison walls fell down”, and that his work Things Fall Apart inspired him to continue the struggle to end apartheid. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison has noted that Achebe’s work inspired her to become a writer and “sparked her love affair with African literature”.
Achebe was the recipient of over 30 honorary degrees from universities in England, Scotland, Canada, South Africa, Nigeria and the United States, including Dartmouth College, Harvard, and Brown University. He was awarded the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, an Honorary Fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1982), a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2002), the Nigerian National Order of Merit (Nigeria’s highest honour for academic work), the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Man Booker International Prize 2007 and the 2010 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. He was appointed Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations Population Fund in 1999.
He twice refused the Nigerian honour Commander of the Federal Republic, in 2004 and 2011, saying:
“I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the Presidency.”
Despite his scholarly achievements and the global importance of his work, Achebe never received a Nobel Prize, which some observers viewed as unjust. When Wole Soyinka was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, Achebe joined the rest of Nigeria in celebrating the first African ever to win the prize. He lauded Soyinka’s “stupendous display of energy and vitality”, and said he was “most eminently deserving of any prize”. In 1988 Achebe was asked by a reporter for Quality Weekly how he felt about never winning a Nobel Prize; he replied: “My position is that the Nobel Prize is important. But it is a European prize. It’s not an African prize … Literature is not a heavyweight championship. Nigerians may think, you know, this man has been knocked out. It’s nothing to do with that.”
Chinua Achebe’s Death
Died March 21, 2013, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.), Nigerian novelist acclaimed for his unsentimental depictions of the social and psychological disorientation accompanying the imposition of Western customs and values upon traditional African society.
His particular concern was with emergent Africa at its moments of crisis; his novels range in subject matter from the first contact of an African village with the white man to the educated African’s attempt to create a firm moral order out of the changing values in a large city.
Life Lessons (Secrets of) Chinua Achebe
- He Settled on one time.; He was known for writing stories. It is very clear that when you mention Achebe, nothing will jump at you except novel writing. The mark of successful people is that they are trapped in a cage of one thing they are good at. They do not scatter their focus and energy on many things. They focus on one thing. What is the one thing that you are committed to? Have you discovered it already? Mastery flows to people who have a grasp on few things.
- He started Small; Settling on one thing doesn’t guarantee success until you start small. Achebe started his writing career by publishing short stories in his university years. We never know him for the short stories he wrote but we know him for the bestsellers he wrote as a result of gaining confidence from starting small. Starting small gives you the rare opportunity to grow with your dream. It is a direct correlation. As your dream grows, you also grow. Start now with what you have!
- He settled for More; What about if Achebe had settled for writing only short stories? I believe it takes the spirit of pioneering and risk taking to echo that ‘I will never settle for less’. I can imagine that he said this to himself and then translated his words into actions. It wasn’t an overnight success. Although only 2,000 copies of Things Fall Apart were published in 1958, by 1995, it had made a hit sale of over 8 million copies. In whatever you do, never settle for less!
- A man of Integrity; Chinua Achebe rejected Nigeria National honour twice, citing bitter disappointment with government corruption and brutality, Achebe rejected the Nigerian government’s attempt to name him a Commander of the Federal Republic a national honor twice in 2004 and in 2011.
- Achebe was a great reader. Not only because he was a writer but because everyone who wants to go far in life must read, a lot.
- Achebe Spoke Out. No one is respected in silence. If you think anything is wrong in a society/group you belong and keep silence, you’ll be regarded as a coward and no one honour the coward.
- His First Work Brings Him Into Limelight; His first novel, the groundbreaking “Things Fall Apart” (1958, pictured below), is the most-widely read book in African literature and has sold more than 8 million copies worldwide, and it was translated into more than 40 Languages.