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.
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, religion, and English.
Because he switched his field, he lost his scholarship and had to pay tuition fees. He received a government bursary, and his family also donated money – his older brother Augustine gave up money for a trip home from his job as a civil servant so Chinua could continue his studies. From its inception, the university had a strong Arts faculty; it includes many famous writers amongst its alumni. These include Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, poet and playwright John Pepper Clark, and poet Christopher Okigbo. Elechi Amadi was also another famous writer who studied at the university in the 1950s, although he was in the Faculty of Sciences.
His first published stories appeared in the student publication – The University Herald. These stories have been reprinted in the collection of Girls at War and Other Stories, which was published in 1972.
Of his student writings, only a few are significantly relative to his more mature works; short stories such as “Marriage is a Private Affair” and “Dead Man’s Path” explore the conflicts that arise when Western culture meets African society.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1953, Achebe joined the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation as a producer of radio talks. In 1956, he went to London to attend the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Staff School. While in London, he submitted the manuscript for Things Fall Apart to a publisher, with the encouragement and support of one of his BBC instructors, a writer and literary critic. The novel was published in 1958 by Heinemann, a publishing firm that began a long relationship with Achebe and his work. Fame came almost instantly.
Upon returning to Nigeria, Achebe rose rapidly within the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. As founder and director of the Voice of Nigeria in 1961, Achebe and his colleagues aimed at developing more national identity and unity through radio programs that highlighted Nigerian affairs and culture.
Turmoil in Nigeria from 1966 to 1972 was matched by turmoil for Achebe. In 1966, young Igbo officers in the Nigerian army staged a coup d’ètat. Six months later, another coup by non-Igbo officers overthrew the Igbo-led government. The new government targeted Achebe for persecution, knowing that his views were unsympathetic to the new regime. Achebe fled to Nsukka in eastern Nigeria, which is predominantly Igbo-speaking, and he became a senior research fellow at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
In 1967, the eastern part of Nigeria declared independence as the nation of Biafra. This incident triggered thirty months of civil war that ended only after Biafra surrendered. Achebe then fled to Europe and America, where he wrote and talked about Biafran affairs.
Continuing his relationship with Heinemann, Achebe published four other novels: No Longer at Ease (the 1960 sequel to Things Fall Apart), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966), and Anthills of the Savannah (1987). He also wrote and published several children’s books that express his basic views in forms and language understandable to young readers.
In addition to his writing career, Achebe maintained an active teaching career. In 1972, he was appointed to a three-year visiting professorship at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and, in 1975, to a one-year visiting professorship at the University of Connecticut. In 1976, with matters sufficiently calm in Nigeria, he returned as professor of English at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, with which he had been affiliated since 1966.
In 1990, he became the Charles P. Stevenson, Jr., professor of literature at Bard College, Annandale, New York. Achebe received many awards from academic and cultural institutions around the world. In 1959, he won the Margaret Wong Memorial Prize for Things Fall Apart. The following year, after the publication of its sequel, No Longer at Ease, he was awarded the Nigerian National Trophy for Literature.
His book of poetry, Christmas in Biafra, written during the Nigerian civil war, won the first Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1972. More than twenty universities in Great Britain, Canada, Nigeria, and the United States have awarded Achebe honorary degrees.
Achebe twice refused the Nigerian honour of Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR), in 2004 and 2011. He died on March 21, 2013 in Boston Massachusetts. He was 82.
Unbowed! Unbent! Unbroken!
A Perfect Gentleman…