Chinua Achebe, Teacher of Light: A Biography

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LITERATURE & ARTS Tijan M. Sallah and Ngozi Okonjo-lweala. Chinua Achebe, Teacher of Light: A Biography. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2003. 160 pp. Maps. Illustrations. $19.95. Paper.

This volume is a fitting tribute to a renowned African writer whose works have elicited worldwide critical praise. It is written in prose that flows with an ease and fluidity that almost resemble Achebe's own. In the book we meet a gifted and sensitive writer-activist who is deeply rooted in African and Igbo values and sensibilities. It is these values that enabled the young Achebe to navigate the African and Western/Christian worlds, both to transcend and ultimately to contest the absence of a positive and balanced view of Africa and Africans in the stories he so loved to read. By giving Africa and Africans a voice in world literature, Achebe has made a definitive statement that Africa and Africans matter. It is a role he has come to be identified with and one he performs repeatedly in his native Nigeria and elsewhere.

The first eight chapters detail Achebe's early childhood and education in Ogidi and then at University College, Ibadan. It was at Ibadan that Achebe realized that all the writers he had read growing up, including Joyce Gary and Joseph Conrad, had in a sense deceived him. The important discovery that there was something dehumanizing in the way stories about Africa were told led him to conclude that Africans had to break their silence and begin to narrate their own stories. This was the inspiration for Things Fall Apart, Achebe's first novel.

The authors also recount the story of how he met his wife, Christie, while both worked at the Nigeria Broadcasting Service (NBS), he as controller and she as a student-intern for the summer. It is clear that their relationship is a loving and trusting one, based on mutual respect, caring, and understanding. These qualities served them in good stead with the eruption of the Nigerian Civil War and the tragedy that followed in Biafra, eloquently discussed in chapters 10 and 11. These were trying times for Nigerians generally, and for Igbos and the Achebe family in particular, as the brutal war tore at the very core of the country. The Achebes lost not only dear friends, including the poet Christopher Okigbo, but also perhaps hope in a unified and stable Nigeria. Thus, like his protagonist Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, Achebe went into exile, albeit self-imposed, which "gave him time to reflect and heal somewhat" (96).

Chapter 12 provides a lucid overview of Achebe's major novels, five of them in all. …