Chinua Achebe

Nigerian novelist, poet, and critic

Chinua Achebe is very much a product of the times he was born and grew up in. Benefitting from elite education and exposure, he grew up to become one of the greatest individuals in Africa.

Chinua Achebe lived a very interesting and ultimately fulfilling life, earning the acclaim of people around the world for his literature, activism, and thoughts.

Life Facts

  • Chinua Achebe was born on 16 November 1930 near Ogidi, Eastern Nigeria.
  • Achebe originally studied to be a Doctor but switched over to pursue a career in literature.
  • Achebe’s influential masterpiece, ‘Things Fall Apart’ was published in 1958.
  • Achebe’s first job was as a teacher in a decrepit local school in Eastern Nigeria.
  • Achebe was awarded the Margaret Wrong Memorial Prize for contributing to African literature.
  • Achebe was awarded Nigerian National Trophy for Literature in 1960, the year of Nigeria’s independence from British rule.
  • Achebe worked at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, first as a scriptwriter in the Talks Department, before riding to the position of director of external broadcasting.
  • Achebe becomes the visiting Professor of Literature at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.
  • Achebe succumbs to a brief illness on the 21st of March 2013.

Interesting Facts

  • Achebe was once hunted by the Nigerian military after the July 1966 counter-coup; they believed he was complicit in the earlier January 1966 coup.
  • Achebe almost lost the manuscript of ‘Things Fall Apart’ after the typing agency he mailed the handwritten work to broke of communication with him.
  • Achebe refused American rapper, Curtis Jackson, also known as 50 Cent, permission to name his film ‘Things Fall Apart.’
  • Achebe was part of a group of intellectuals that went on diplomatic missions on behalf of Biafra during the civil war.
  • Achebe once refused to vacate a spot on a bus reserved for white commuters while visiting Northern Rhodesia, now known as Zambia.
  • Between 1967 and 1968, Achebe declined two offers by Northwestern University to teach in the Gwendolen M. A. Carter program of African studies in the United States in favor of supporting Biafra’s war efforts back home.

Famous Books by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart’ is Achebe’s first novel, and its massive success meant Achebe never experienced the life of a struggling writer. The work turned him into an instant celebrity. ‘Things Fall Apart’ examines the community of Umuofia before and after the coming of the British imperialists. It zeroes in on Okonkwo, a very successful but hugely flawed individual who is motivated by an intense fear of failure. Through Okonkwo’s actions, as well as those around him, we come to understand the traditions and customs of the people of Umuofia. The coming of the Whiteman, however, disrupts and permanently changes life as the people of Umuofia knew it. Unwillingly to put up with the British rule, Okonkwo tries and fails to rouse his people into rebellion. ‘Things Fall Apart’ was the first novel to tell the story of the initial interaction between the European colonialists and Africans from the perspective of the Africans.

A Man of the People’ is Achebe’s second novel and one set closer to the contemporary period. Set in the fictional African Republic that bears an obvious resemblance to Nigeria, it satirizes the corruption and leadership rot within Nigerian politics. It focuses on the rivalry between the young Odili and the much-loved Chief Nanga. Chief Nanga’s victory over Odili in a provincial election signals the triumph of the old guard corrupt politicians, but his eventual downfall alongside the rest of this corrupt government in a military coup seems to communicate the idea that the end point of the corruption and ineptness in the Nigerian government was a disaster on a similar scale. This turned out to be prescient as a group of young soldiers soon undertook a bloody coup that overthrew the Tafawa-Balewa-led Nigerian government.

Arrow of God is often compared favorably with Things Fall Apart because while both work death with broadly similar themes, ‘Arrow of God’ is the more stylistically complex novel. ‘Arrow of God’s scope is much wider than ‘Things Fall Apart‘ with Achebe providing a deeper treatment of the intricacies of traditional Igbo politics and the complexities associated with a polytheistic religious system. It focuses on Ezeulu, the priest of the Ulu deity, as he tries to exert influence on his community in the face of the waning power of his god. His problems are complicated by a colonial authority who wants to utilize him as a vassal and a new religion that also strips away power from him.

Early Life and Education

Achebe was born on 16 November 1930 near Ogidi in Eastern Nigeria. He was originally baptized Albert Chinụalụmọgụ Achebe but dropped the Albert and then shortened the Chinụalụmọgụ to just Chinua over time. Achebe’s father, Isaiah Okafor Achebe, was a teacher and evangelist who was among the early converts to Christianity from an Ogidi community that had erstwhile practiced Odinani- the traditional religion. His mother, Janet Iloegbunam, was a leader among Church women and a farmer.  Achebe’s birth and early childhood coincided with a period when the British missionaries had penetrated deeply into Igboland and fractured its villages into Christian and Pagan camps. So Achebe lived at a cultural crossroads and was exposed to both religions during his childhood, although he grew up a Christian and was provided Western education.

Achebe’s earliest education consisted of the folk stories his mother told him- stories that provided a steady repertoire of folk material with which he would garnish his works in the future. But he was also exposed to Western books, collages, and almanacs which his father had around the house.

Achebe began his primary education at St Phillips’ Central School in Ogidi, where he quickly established a reputation for his brilliance and handwriting. He proceeded to the prestigious Government College Umuahia for his secondary education. He completed his secondary education at Nekede Central school in the Owerri region of Eastern Nigeria and passed the entrance examination for two colleges.  Achebe was admitted on scholarship at the newly opened University College (later renamed the University of Ibadan) to study medicine in 1948. During his study, Achebe became exposed to works from writers like Sir Rider Haggard, Joseph Conrad, and Joyce Cary. He was critical of these works because of their lopsided portrayal of Africa and soon decided to pursue a career in literature. He abandoned medicine to study English, Literature, and Theology, losing his scholarship in the process. But he was able to continue his studies after getting some help from his family.

Writing Career

Achebe published his first work, titled ‘Polar undergraduate’ in 1950 in the campus magazine, ‘The University Herald.’ Achebe served as the Herald’s editor during the 1951–52 school year, publishing ‘In a Village Church’ (1951) in the publication. He also wrote other short stories during his time at Ibadan, including ‘The Old Order in Conflict with the New’ (1952) and ‘Dead Men’s Path’ (1953). Achebe’s literary focus began shifting towards the exploration of the relationship and interactions between Christianity and African Traditional religion after the arrival of Geoffrey Parrinder at the university to teach comparative religion.

Achebe graduated from the University in 1953 and then taught at a local school in Ogidi. Achebe spent only four months at the school before proceeding to Lagos to resume work at the Nigerian Broadcasting Service as a scriptwriter for the Talks Department in 1954. The role allowed him to perfect his ability to write realistic dialogues.  By this time, Achebe began work on his novel ‘Things Fall Apart.’ He took advantage of a trip to London as an attendee of the British Broadcasting Corporation staff training school in 1956 to solicit expert feedback on his now-developed manuscript for ‘Things Fall Apart.’

When Achebe returned to Nigeria, he revised and finetuned the novel and then cut out a second and third section from the original manuscript. Having originally conceived the novel in three parts which should follow three successive generations, Achebe then decided that the first part of the book was a self-contained whole and complete story.  Feeling the work complete, Achebe sent the manuscript to a London typing service In 1957 for it to be typed. However, his manuscript was promptly abandoned at a corner of the office, and it took the intervention of Achebe’s boss at the NBS, Angela Beattie, for him to receive a typed copy of his manuscript after months of solicitation.

After some initial rejections, Achebe’s manuscript was finally accepted for publication by Heinemann after a recommendation from an educational adviser, Donald MacRae. ‘Things Fall Apart‘ was published on 17 June 1958 to eventual widespread acclaim. The book was about the arrival of the British colonialists, with their missionaries at the vanguard, to the community of Umuofia. Their arrival disrupts normal life and plunges the community into chaos. Okonkwo, an influential and successful man within the community, is at the center of the story, and his unwillingness to accept the overlordship of the British leads to his tragic end. During this time, Achebe was promoted at NBS to oversee the services of Eastern Network coverage. He also started dating his would-be wife, Christiana Chinwe (Christie) Okoli, who had just joined the NBS.

Achebe published his second novel, ‘No Longer at Ease’ in 1960. This work is a sequel of Things Fall Apart and follows the career of the intelligent and promising grandson of Okonkwo, Obi, in the urban city of Lagos. Obi’s high values and willingness to break with the traditions of his people leads him into conflict with his kinsmen and ultimately drives him into breaking these values by succumbing to the temptation of taking a bribe at the office.

The next year Achebe was promoted to Director of external broadcasting at the NBS. Also that year, he became the General Editor of Heinemann’s African Writer Series, a series that came to define postcolonial African literature. Achebe published his third Novel, ‘Arrow of God’, in 1964. The work was inspired by the story of a chief priest who was imprisoned by a colonial officer.  Achebe was also inspired by the excavations of impressive and sophisticated Igbo objects by the archaeologist Thurston Shaw. The work follows a heated rivalry between a Chief Priest of an Igbo community’s primary deity and the priest of a competing deity. The arrival of a third competing deity as brought by the Christians, as well as the demands of a British government in need of indirect rulers to act in its stead further, complicates things.

Achebe followed that work with ‘A Man of the People.’ Published in 1966, this work is a political satire that turned out to be prescient as it eerily predicted the events that would permanently shake up the Nigerian political space, such as the chaos from inefficient and corrupt leadership and a military takeover of the civilian government. Soon after a group of Nigerian majors toppled the civilian government in a bloody coup but ultimately failed to seize power. Because the most prominent members of this coup were Igbos, it was viewed as an Igbo power grab and eventually led to a counter-coup and military crackdown that led to the massacre of thousands of Igbo military officers and civilians in the North.  Targeted by the military because they thought he had foreknowledge of the earlier coup, Achebe was forced to send his family home to the safer Eastern Nigeria before eventually joining them.

A civil war soon broke out between Nigeria and the breakaway country of Biafra. Achebe held a variety of functions within the Biafran government, functioning as a globe-trotting envoy of the government tasked with soliciting aid from around the world. He also participated in the drafting of policies such as the famous Ahiara declaration.  He, however, continued writing, focusing now on poems about the war, which are all contained within his 1971 book ‘Beware, Soul Brother.’

After the war, Achebe settled for a life in academia. Holding a teaching position at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he was involved in the publication of two journals, Okike (started before the war) and Nsukkascope (a campus journal). Achebe moved to the United States with his family after accepting the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s offer of a professorship in September 1972. After spending four years here, Achebe returned to his position at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. He became briefly involved in Nigerian politics as a member of the People’s Redemption Party but soon grew disenchanted with the country’s political class. He published his fourth novel, ‘Anthills of the Savannah’ in 1987. The book was widely praised and became a finalist for the Booker prize.

Late Achievements and Death

Achebe became paralyzed from the waist down after suffering an accident while traveling in Nigeria. Soon afterward, Achebe became the Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, a position he held for more than fifteen years.

Achebe was awarded the Man Booker international prize for literature in 2007 and also received the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize in 2010. Achebe published his last work, ‘There Was a Country: A Person history of Biafra’ in 2012.  He died on the 21st of March 2013 in Boston after a short illness.

Achebe’s influences

Achebe’s influence on African literature is gigantic, with his work influencing the later writing of writers such as Chukwuemeka Ike, Flora Nwapa, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.