I woke up this morning to news that Nigeria’s prolific author Chinua Achebe had passed. I’m sad, but I’m also grateful – for his life, his work and more importantly, his influence.
Prior to attending Wesley Girls’ High School in Cape Coast, I had virtually no idea about what “African literature” was. If you meant the stories submitted by readers to The Mirror, a Saturday weekly in Ghana, then maybe. But if you meant stories that capture the sometimes mundane details of daily life in an African country, complete with the kola nuts, local proverbs, and complexities of traditional and contemporary African life, then not really.
Then came Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Efua Sutherland’s The Marriage of Anansewa – and a whole new world was opened up to me. I can’t recount the number of times I read Things Fall Apart, it was just that good. Achebe’s descriptions of Okonkwo, Unoka and Obierika – some of the main characters – were all too real and inviting. Each character taught something unique and valuable. And let’s not forget the somewhat scary, yet hilariously absurd descriptions:
“I am Evil Forest, I am Dry-meat-that-fills-the-moth, I am Fire-that-burns-without-faggots”. I mean.
What really did it for me was how he captured the inner struggles of each character, intertwining it within a web of history, tradition, social expectation, individual resolve, experience. In the pages of Achebe’s book, I saw glimpses of the life I knew – a complex one, full of transitions, questions, victories, struggles, culture – on both the individual and societal fronts. Things Fall Apart might have been about Nigeria in the pre-colonial era, but it was very present and personal to me. Not to mention the fact that this was (finally) a colonial narration from an African perspective and voice. Two character references which left an impression on me are:
“Do not despair. I know you will not despair. You have a manly and proud heart. A proud heart can survive a general failure because such a failure does not prick its pride. It is difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone.” – Unoka to Okonkwo“But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed.” – Narrator
“Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.”“Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings.”“The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did.”“When mother-cow is chewing grass its young ones watch its mouth.”
Achebe influenced many, including one of my favorite contemporary African authors: Chimamanda Adichie who I met in 2009. I can’t imagine how she must feel. Adichie makes reference to Achebe on numerous occasions, and while their narrations on Nigerian history might differ, they both echoed the same thing: tell your story, speak your truth, bear in mind that it’s not the only one. If I were to pinpoint one thing which has greatly influenced African youth today, it would be Adichie’s TED talk on the danger of a single story (embedded below). And those words find their roots with Chinua Achebe:
“If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.”“I believe in the complexity of the human story and that there’s no way you can tell that story in one way and say, this is it.”“It is the storyteller who makes us what we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that the survivors must have – otherwise their surviving would have no meaning.”
Nigeria and Africa have indeed lost a great man. But being the great influencer he was, his legacy, work and words live on. Professor Achebe, may you rest in perfect peace.
“Every generation must recognize and embrace the task it is peculiarly designed by history and by providence to perform.” ― Chinua Achebe