CHINUA ACHEBE, NIGERIA'S MOST revered man of letters, has had a truly remarkable literary career, writing a mix of poetry, fiction and essays. And now a new book is published that is a mix of biography, history and social comment.
So how does this book figure in the body of writings that Achebe has produced? Its theme is a recollection of his early years and the appalling Nigerian Civil War that tore the country apart and claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Nigerians (we will probably never know the true figure but estimates have been as high as three million deaths).
This war, fought between Achebe's Igbo people (grouped in what was then called the "Republic of Biafra") and the Nigerian Federal Government, still has reverberations and continues to scar the national psyche.
Achebe's new book has received mixed reviews, but generally it has been appreciated as a record of the latter years of Nigeria under colonialism as well as the traumatic period following the 30 May 1967 declaration of secession by Biafra from Nigeria's Federal State.
Led by a young and charismatic army colonel, Odumegwu Ojukwu, the breakaway "Republic of Biafra') declared its independence, an action that sparked the war.
But to review this book, we should start at the beginning: it is Achebe's memoirs of what appears to have been a happy childhood. He explains that he has included his recollections of "coming of age in an earlier and, in some respects, more innocent time", in order to give context to later events, such as the Biafran War, and to be open "about some of the sources of my own perceptions".
His father, described as "a brilliant man who deeply valued education'', was an early Christian convert, a schoolteacher and an evangelist preacher. His mother, who he was also very close to, was educated by missionaries and helped her husband spread the gospel.
Achebe's own education was undertaken at a number of schools, and he admits to having been a keen, hardworking student. What is so interesting about his descriptions of the schools he attended is the Anglophile tone of the appreciation of the institutions and the teachers he met on the way.
Yet, before Achebe started secondary school, and having being fascinated by Igbo culture, he sought an alternative education and was introduced to the sophistication of the Owerri Igbo belief system.
That said, Achebe admits to a heresy. While he does not justify colonialism, he insists that it is important to face the fact that "British colonies, more or less, were expertly run ... there was a distinct order during this time".
But it was also a time of a rising call for African nationalism and an explosion of political organisations. World War II might have caused a bit of a lull, but the media of the day, essentially newspapers and radio programmes, were full of the post-war exploits of Nnamdi Azikiwe, "the father of African independence", who inspired Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and many others, including Achebe himself who throughout his life has always taken a broadly pan-African ist view. …