By Elsa Crowther, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy
Nigerian author Chinua Achebe was given a colourful, grand send off in his hometown of Ogidi. The crowd of partially traditionally dressed attendants who came to pay their last respects to the man who was crowned as “the father of modern African writing” contained amongst others Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. Mr Achebe died in March in the US, but his body was transported back to Nigeria in order to be buried in a mausoleum on the family compound in a private ceremony after the public service.
Fascinated with world religions and African cultures, Mr Achebe completed six books in his lifetime, his most famous book, Things Fall Apart (1958), selling 10 million copies. His novels focus on traditions of the Igbo society, an ethnic minority group of farmers from south-eastern Nigeria that have developed a strong sense of national identity since the mid 20th century. In the case of Things Fall Apart, the novel depicts the life of a leader and local wrestling champion in Umofia, a Igbo, describing his life and personal history, the customs of the Igbo people as well as their society and the influences of British colonialism and Christian missionaries on the Igbo people in the late nineteenth century.
Although a big supporter of traditional African language and culture, Achebe caused controversy by choosing to write his novels in English. In an interview with The Paris Review in 1994, he explained the reasons behind this decision by saying that “the novel form seems to go with the English language. There is a problem with the Igbo language. It suffers from a very serious inheritance which it received at the beginning of the century from the Anglican mission. They sent out a missionary by the name of Dennis. Archdeacon Dennis. He was a scholar. He had this notion that the Igbo language – which had very many different dialects – should somehow manufacture a uniform dialect that would be used in writing to avoid all these different dialects. Because the missionaries were powerful, what they wanted to do they did. This became the law. But the standard version cannot sing. There’s nothing you can do with it to make it sing. It’s heavy. It’s wooden. It doesn’t go anywhere”. Even just from this quote the passion Achebe felt about the traditions and in this case languages become clear. He refused to write in his own language due to the negative western influence imposed on it nearly a century before. However, Achebe did carry on the oral tradition of the Igbo people by weaving folk tales into the fabric of his stories, thereby illustrating community values in both the content and the form of his storytelling.
In addition to his life as a novelist, Chinua Achebe was also described as a poet, professor and critic, a well rounded academic that did not doubt getting involved politically in the Biafran struggle for independence, during which he acted as ambassador for the people of this new nation. Nevertheless, Achebe was left deeply disillusioned by the conduct of Nigerian politicians, publishing a book to coincide with the upcoming elections in the mid 80s called The Trouble with Nigeria, in which he describes the Nigerian problem as “the unwillingness or inability of its leader to rise to the responsibility and to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.” His views seem to epitomize the problems that are still actual in African politics, with corruption and fraudulent elections being commonplace.
At the same time, Achebe was, in all respects, an extremely diplomatic person. On the topic of colonialism and the effects of it on the Igbo culture, he said: “I never will take the stand that the Old must win or the New must win. The point is that no single truth satisfied me – and this is well founded in the Igbo world view. No single man can be correct all the time, no single idea con be totally correct.” (quoted in Lindfors pp. 101 – 102). This vision on colonialism differs from many African authors and politicians who feel very bitter still towards the western world. In many ways while doing research on Chinua Achebe, Nelson Mandela came to mind as a similar character in African society. In fact, Mr Mandela called him “the writer in whose company the prison walls came down”; a quote that I imagine says it all about Mr Achebes’ skill as an author.
Center for Cultural Diplomacy Studies Publication
Institute for Cultural Diplomacy