Chinua Achebe

By Smith, Alex Duval | The Independent (London, England), March 25, 2013 | Go to article overview
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Chinua Achebe

Smith, Alex Duval, The Independent (London, England)

Novelist and dissident whose work reclaimed Africa's history

Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author and dissident who has died at the age of 82, learnt early in life that words can lead to a lot of pain. It happened when he was at secondary school in colonial Nigeria. Turning to a fellow pupil, he asked in his native Igbo language: ''Nyefe M ncha ahu'' [pass me the soap]. For not using English, Achebe's English headmaster gave him a beating he remembered all his life.

Things Fall Apart, which must be the most widely-read African- authored novel of all time, tells the story of a Nigerian tribesman's downfall at the hand of the British. The novel, published two years before Nigeria's independence in 1960, set the tone for a literary and dissident life focused on reclaiming Africa's history and identity. It was published by Heinemann, with whom he later worked as editor of the visionary "African Writer Series'' that brought dozens of the continent's authors to international attention.

Born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe in the Igbo village of Ogidi in southeastern Nigeria, he was among five surviving children in a Christian evangelist family. In Achebe's early years, his Protestant Church Mission Society father, Isaiah, and mother, Janet, travelled across rural south-eastern Nigeria as preachers. Storytelling of the Biblical but also traditional Igbo varieties featured strongly in the young Achebe's life, as did discussions about the ''world views'' of Christianity versus traditional religion.

Achebe excelled at school, earning scholarships along the way. At the age of 14, he was admitted to Government College in Umuahia - created along elitist British public school lines to craft NIgeria's future ruling class. This was where Achebe was beaten for speaking Igbo at bath time and where, having gorged himself on the library's diet of Gulliver's Travels, David Copperfield and Treasure Island he said he learnt to take sides "with the white characters against the savages". He was classmates with the poet Christopher Okigbo, who later became a firm friend and whose death on the frontline during the Biafran war devastated Achebe.

At University College, Ibadan, Achebe published student life satires with playwright-to-be Wole Soyinka, and after graduation worked briefly as a teacher before joining the Nigerian Broadcasting Service in Lagos. His exposure to radio as a talks producer taught him to write vivid dialogue. He played a leading part in the development of broadcasting in Nigeria, setting up its international service, Voice of Nigeria.

Achebe said the Queen's tour of Nigeria in 1956 was a significant moment for him because it brought issues of colonialism and politics to the fore. The same year, a visit to Britain for a BBC training course crystallised the bedrock of Things Fall Apart, whose title is borrowed from WB Yeats' "things fall apart; the centre cannot hold''.

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