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Chinua Achebe: A Man of the People

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Image of Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe is considered by many critics and teachers to be the most influential African writer of his generation. His writings, including the novel Things Fall Apart, have introduced readers throughout the world to creative uses of language and form, as well as to factual inside accounts of modern African life and history.

Image of Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, c.1974/History Today.

Not only through his literary contributions but also through his championing of bold objectives for Nigeria and Africa, Achebe has helped reshape the perception of African history, culture, and place in world affairs.

Early Life and Education

Achebe was born in the Igbo town of Ogidi, present day, Anambra State, in Eastern Nigeria on November 16, 1930, the fifth child of Isaiah Okafor Achebe and Janet Iloegbunam Achebe. His father was an instructor in Christian catechism for the Church Missionary Society.

Nigeria was a British colony during Achebe’s early years, and educated English- speaking families like the Achebes occupied a privileged position in the Nigerian power structure.

Achebe attended the Church Missionary Society’s school where the primary language of instruction for the first two years was Igbo. At about eight, he began learning English. His relatively late introduction to English allowed Achebe to develop a sense of cultural pride and an appreciation of his native tongue — values that may not have been cultivated had he been raised and taught exclusively in English.

Achebe’s home fostered his understanding of both cultures: He read books in English in his father’s library, and he spent hours listening to his mother and sister tell traditional Igbo stories.

At fourteen, Achebe was selected to attend the Government College in Umuahia, the equivalent of a university preparatory school and considered the best in West Africa. Achebe excelled at his studies, and after graduating at eighteen, he was accepted to study medicine at the new University College at Ibadan, a member college of London University at the time. The demand for educated Nigerians in the government was heightened because Nigeria was preparing for self-rule and independence.

Only with a college degree was a Nigerian likely to enter the higher ranks of the civil service. The growing nationalism in Nigeria was not lost on Achebe. At the university, he dropped his English name “Albert” in favor of the Igbo name “Chinua,” short for Chinualumogu.

Just as Igbo names in Things Fall Apart have literal meanings, Chinualumogu is translated as “My God fight for me.”

At the University College, Achebe switched his studies to liberal arts, including history, religio