Saturday, March 23, 2013

Farewell to the Doyen of African Literature: Chinua Achebe, 1930 - 2013

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat.
Things Fall Apart- Chinua Achebe

The opening lines of  the great literary piece that is Things Fall Apart (1958) have so much resonance with myself as well as countless generations of Africans. It was therefore with great sadness that we learnt of the passing of the great doyen of African literature, Professor Chinua Achebe on 22 March 2013. 

Aside from the sad news trending on Twitter, my facebook timeline was filled with lovely tributes to a man who was pivotal to our appreciation of African literature. 

Both Chinua Achebe and Things Fall Apart trend on Twitter

Over the past 24 hours, I've had a chance to reflect on where my own love for Achebe's works started. Growing up in Swaziland in the 1980s, our bookshelves at home housed almost the entire Heinmanns African Writers Series collection. As a young child, I would re-arrange these orange/white books without reading them.  One day, when I was 8 years old, a film version of Things Fall Apart was being shown on television. Having watched snippets of the film, I wanted to know more so embarked on reading the book. I devoured it instantly. At the time, the subtleties and underlying themes were lost on me but I was enchanted by the vibrant scenes, colourful characters and how Achebe weaved them all together. 
The dramatic cover of Things Fall Apart I grew up with
It was only years later on a second reading that I had a better appreciation for some of the central themes of Things Fall Apart such as the struggle of pre-colonial African traditions in the face of colonial incursion and Christianity. The book's sequel, No Longer at Ease (1960) which was set in post-colonial Nigeria, continued on these themes by chronicling the personal conflicts of Obi Okonkwo, the grandson of Things Fall Apart's Okwonkwo.

For me Achebe's real literary masterpiece would have to be the complex Arrow of God (1964) which was compulsory reading for an English class. While Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness managed to mystify colonial Africa with images of native savagery and rituals in the jungle, Arrow God was able to demystify these images. The mysterious drumming in the  forest at night was explained. 

I have never read Achebe's other books Man of the People (1966) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987) but now seems a good time to discover these other works.

Perhaps the reason Achebe's writing has so much resonance with many of us of the post-colonial African generation is that his work tells the story of the making of contemporary Africa. It reflects our transition from the colonial to post-colonial era. Also, for many of us, our introduction to African literature started with Achebe. His passing is a loss for his family, Nigeria, the entire African continent and the world. 

Professor Achebe, Rest in Peace. 
Thank you for shaping out minds and enriching our lives. 

Source: The New Yorker

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