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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Chinua Achebe (1930-2013): Light of Africa

Professor Chinua Achebe, David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University, USA and the Nigerian author—“in many ways the conscience of Nigeria”—died in Boston on Thursday, 21 March 2013, at the age of 82.   

Chinua Acheba portrayed the destruction of his native Igbo tribal system and culture by the colonial rule of the Europeans in quite a realistic way through his well known novels—Things Fall Apartt, Arrow of God and No Longer at Ease— that are usually treated as a trilogy. But it is his first novel Things Fall Apart —published in English in 1958, which till date has sold more than ten million copies and has been translated into more than fifty languages—that earned him a permanent place in the world literary canon.

This novel is all about the life of an African farmer, Okonkwo—an Igbo elder having “a manly and a proud heart”—and his fight against the assault of the colonizers from Britain to preserve his native customs. The novel plots the rise, fall and destruction of Okonkwo, the headman of Umuofia. The novel traces the apocalyptic journey of Okonkwo’s from “great poverty and misfortune to be one of the lords of the clan” whom finally the colonizers “drove to kill himself” and “to be buried like a dog” by the strangers. 

Everyone knowing Okonkwo’s grim struggle against poverty and misfortune would not say he had been lucky. At the most one can say that his chi, personal god, was good – “When a man says yes his chi says yes also, is what Igbo people believe – Okonkwo said yes strongly,  and his chi agreed”. He is deeply rooted in his clan’s traditions: His commitment for the upkeep of the tradition was so strong that he will not wink even for a minute to  disapprove  the conduct of his own son —his taking to reading in preference to physical labor—considering him to be effeminate—“has too much of mother in him.” Once during new Yam festival, as the village is pulsating with the persisting, unchanging, beating of drums of  “unmistakable wrestling dance” when his daughter Ezinma, placing her mother’s dish before him, and sits, he shout at her, “Sit like a woman!” where upon she brings her two legs together. That bespeaks of this unusual man’s unusual concern for upholding his Igbo standards of behavior. 

But as he once shoots a boy with his gun killing him, nemesis overtakes him. As per his clan’s traditions he gets banishment from his native village for seven years as punishment. He then moves to his mother’s village and restarts his life all over again. In the meanwhile, things grow worse in his native village. The white missionaries first set up a church and start converting the vulnerable, including his own son, Nwoye. 

Umuofia has indeed changed during Okonkwo’s seven years exile beyond recognition as revealed in the lamentations between Obierika and himself: “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. …Now he has won our brothers …He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”  

Okonkwo’s return from exile is not as memorable as he wished for. White missionaries, by then have set up a church and started converting the vulnerable people to Christianity. Okonkwo gets terribly disappointed by the destruction of native traditions at the hands of white men thoroughly. However for the first time after his return, Okonkwo feels happy when his clansmen meet in the market place to decide on their action after the destruction of the church. He, a warrior, addresses them too like a warrior. Three days later the District Commissioner summons the leaders of Umuofia, among whom Okonkwo is one, who are handcuffed and confined to guardroom.    

After the release of the leaders on payment of fine, the villagers assemble in the market-place. Being the first man to speak Okika, getting up, says: “You all know why we are here…All our Gods are weeping… because of the shameful sacrilege they are suffering… our brothers have deserted us and joined a stranger to soil the fatherland …And if our brothers take the side of evil we must root them out too.And we must do it now…”

At this point, five court messengers come ordering the meeting to stop. Becoming furious at it, Okonkwo draws out his matchet and in a flash beheads one of the messengers. The meeting is stopped. What follows is tumult instead of action. He could discern from it what his clan is up to. Wiping his matchet on the sand he goes away as the voices ask: “Why did he do it?”  

Perhaps, in utter disappointment at the inaction of the crowd and their letting the remaining mesangers run away, and driven by his optimum self-pride, like a prototypical Greek tragic hero, Okonkwo, instead of being subjecting himself to be penalized by a Whiteman, kills himself by hanging from a tree. Thus brings Achebe the destruction of the Igbo culture, in specific, to an end, and by extension of the traumatic cultural uprooting of the colonized nations all over. 

That is the striking narration of Okonkwo’s fight against colonialism, in which Achebe austerely crafted the voyage of a single protagonist, Okonkwo, in the classic Greek tragedy style. To convey the rhythm of African life in its true pulsating fashion from an African perspective, Achebe, like Rajarao’s ‘sanskritized’ English for Serpent and Rope and ‘Kannadized’ English for Kanthapura, synthesized  his own English —preferring expressions such as,  “For whom is it well, for whom is it well? / There is no one for whom it is well” that best resonates the African tone instead of copying usual British expression, “It won’t do anyone any good.” The novel is a reflection of Achebe’s “ebullient, generous, great talent” that filled the novel with full of African similes and metaphors, proverbs: “…he grew rapidly like a yam tendril in the rainy season”; "Okonkwo's fame had grown like a bush -fire in the harmattan"; "iron horse" for bicycle; native axioms like, "if one finger brought oil it soiled the others", etc.,    because of which his Things Fall Apart became a modern classic. 

Achebe was a staunch champion of the Igbo culture; nevertheless, “he never hesitated to lay the blame for the woes of the African continent squarely where it belongs”, says Wole Soyinka. Indeed, in his later novels, Achebe even criticized African leaders for pillaging the African economy. He is essentially a “cultural nationalist” who struggled all through his writings “to help African society regain belief in itself and to put away the complexes of the years of degeneration and self-abasement.” 

All through his writing—five novels:Things Fall Apart (1958), No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A man of the People (1966), Anthills of the Savannah (1987), collections of short stories and poetry, and numerous essays and lectures—Achebe had passionately argued for the right of Africans to tell their own story in their own way, and had also trenchantly attacked the writings of European authors.  Achebe, “the patriarch of the African novel”, warned about the danger of relying on someone else to speak for Africans: you can only be sure of your message being communicated accurately only if you speak with your own voice. 

He is not only a novelist, short story writer and a poet—who through his writings raised his voice in varied ways about the trials of Nigeria’s pre-colonial and colonial history, and the traumas of its post-independence ordeal—but also a critical thinker and essayist who has written extensively on the questions of the role of culture in Africa and the social and political significance of aesthetics in African lives. His essay "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" in 1975, is famous for his trenchant critique of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which, he argued, made Africa as "a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril”—and made him a literary champion of global significance.  

Besides acquiring the status of a writer of repute through his prolific but imaginative writing, Achebe, as the  advisory editor of Heinemann’s African Writers Series, became the  godfather of modern African literature by discovering, mentoring and presenting so many new African authors— Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Dennis Brutus, Tayeb Salih, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Ousmane Sembène, Wole Soyinka, and Nadine Gordimer —to the world literature.

As a storyteller, as a voice of his nation, as a cultural impresario, an intellectual combatant and provocateur, a fighter against the relentless corruption in Nigearia, Achebe gained with age the status of a bard of Nigeria. Indeed, Nigerian government volunteered to confer national honor on him not once but twice, but Achebe refused to accept it, citing failings in government to offer its people clean governance. 

Achebe received many prizes for his literary contributions: the Man Booker International Prize in 2007 for his contribution to literature, Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize of $300,000, one of  the richest prizes for the arts, in 2010, and the Commonwealth Poetry Prize In 1979.
The injuries that he sustained in a car accident in Lagos in 1990 left Achebe confined to a wheelchair, and he was forced to seek medical treatment in the United States. He once returned to Nigeria in 1999, but finding Lagos “confusing and very depressing” and “life so unsafe”, exiled reluctantly. 

With his death, the subaltern world has lost one of its greatest champions who fought for the rightful place for native cultures.


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