Chinua Achebe 1930-2013, By Kole Omotoso

chinua achebe
Chinua Achebe in 1967. Photo courtesy UK Guardian

Avuncular is the easiest word that comes to mind for me in describing China Achebe who passed on last night and joined the ancestors. Ours was not an easy relationship but it was based on great respect from my side and a side ways flance of possibility as far as he thought of me at all.

He was a pioneer in more than one area of thought and writing. He was a builder of institutions and founder of organisations. While a number of Africans north and south of the Sahara had published fiction in English before Achebe published Things Fall Apart in 1957, it took Achebe’s novel to kick-start what today is known around the world as african literature.  The book became the first title in what Heinemann started as the African Writers Series. Chinau Achebe became its founding editor.

My first two novels were published in the series and the second novel did not sit well with him. It is a mockery of the motives of those who fought the civil war. Finally he gave his imprimatur conceding that it was good write!

In 1980 he wrote to a few of us mooting the idea of an association for Nigerian writers. He was our host in Nsukka where we discussed the modalities for such an association. The Association of Nigerian Authors was founded a year later with him as the founding president and myself as the founding general secretary.
It was easy to work with him as long as one was clear what were one’s objective. Our objective in ANA was to set up institutions through which the association could realise its ambition of covering the nation and encouraging writing and reading.

China Achebe was clever enough to set his goals as a writer with precision. He wanted to show Africans where the rain started to beat them, because without that knowledge they would not know where to begin cleaning themselves. As for those outside of Africa, he wanted to let them know that Africa did not hear of Culture for the first time with the arrival of white people on the continent.

Things Fall Apart his best known work portrays a man too proud to fail, who yet had smaller and smaller space in which to express himself as the British colonial government took over his space. No Longer at Ease describes a man who although studies the humanities but was devoid of humane feelings.

He ended up in the colonial goal, not for political reasons like the Nkrumahs and Kenyattas but for taking a bribe as a member of  scholarship board. Arrow of God, Achebe’s greatest novel, even by his own admission describe an arrogant man who abndons his people out of anger against a colonial officer. A Man of the People is light and lacks the seriousness of the others. Anthills of the Savannah was Achebe’s acceptance of the post civil war Nigeria. It is a Nigeria that had gone out of skitters and would never recover. The collection of short stories are uneven in their achievements.

His poetry emanating from the civic war made a great case for the humanitarian disaster that the civic war could have caused at the end.
Chinua Achebe also wrote children’s books with as usual impecable reasons for doing so. He had sought suitable books for his children only to come across books in which the image of Africa is distorted to an extent that he could not expose his children to. The best of those books How the Leopard got its Claws in collaboration with John Iroaganachi, goes beyond its ethnic symbolism to be a powerful tale for young and old.

Posterity will decide if he achieved his literary ambitions. But he provoked enough people inside as well as outside of Africa to respond to him. His essays initially written to back his literary ambitions moves further away from literature and ended embroiled in ethnic politics.

One of his most dramatic actions was his refusal to take a national honour from any government of Nigeria. This is an action I fully supported given his own disapproval of the performance of the government. His other political action joining Aminu Kano’s political party was ill-advised, given the role of that potentate in the riots in Northern Nigeria in May 1967

Chinua Achebe will be remembered as a pioneer and a tireless founder of institutions for the emergence and continiance of African literature specifically and African political anf social affairs generally.

Professor Kole Omotosho, a novelist and literary theorist, is one of Africa’s leading authorities on Arabic and African literature. He was one-time head of the Dramatic Arts department at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. He now resides in Cape Town, South Africa.

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