We bring you Achebe’s words

2009-11-07 13:23

CHINUA Achebe, the ­Nigerian-born writer, is widely regarded as the father of the modern African novel. His reputation was established with his first novel, Things Fall Apart, published in 1958 and written just two years before Nigeria’s independence.

The novel won him the Margaret Wrong Memorial Prize.

After the publication of his ­second novel, No Longer at Ease (1960), he was awarded the Nigerian National Trophy for Literature, and for his third novel, ­Arrow of God (1964), he received the New Statesman Jock Campbell Award.

His last two novels, A Man of the People (1966) and ­Anthill of the ­Savannah (1987) are regarded as some of the most insightful critiques of postcolonial Africa.

It is a sad irony that Achebe now lives outside Africa, the continent that has been a ­major source of inspiration for most of his works. Since 1990, when a car accident outside Lagos left him paralysed from the waist down, he has turned the Bard College campus in the US into what he calls his temporary home.

He has been unable to move back to Nigeria not just because the country was, until recently, in the grip of a corrupt dictatorship, but also because the essentials of civil order, including a healthcare system that can tend to his needs, have all but collapsed.

Achebe, nevertheless, still ­remains an important voice when one considers Africa’s literary history over the last five decades. His works have had a tremendous impact within the academy in ­Africa and beyond. Achebe is read and discussed more than any other African writer. His works, to use his words, have always provided us “with a second handle on existence”, enabling us to create for ourselves “a different set of ­reality from that which has been given to us”.

His works have become the critical lenses through which we peer and penetrate those complex ­moments in our history.
If Achebe’s works, even those set deep in colonial history, continue to resonate with the freshness of insight, it is because they often jolt us into an awareness of our own weaknesses too, as Africans, as blacks, while equally speaking forcefully to our common humanity.

As black Africans, they compel us to come to grips with our history, especially our encounter with colonialism in order to understand where we lost the initiative and agency to locate where the rain begun to beat us, as he would have it.

And yet Achebe’s works also ­underscore the sheer power of narrative, of the story; of memory as an indispensable agent of history. The tragic death, for example, of Ken Saro-Wiwa during the ­tyrannical rule of Sani Abacha’s, Achebe would argue, is precisely because our political leadership fears the storyteller because they remind them of where we come from and the perils of repeating the same mistakes that our erstwhile conquerors made.

In the next few months Achebe’s works will be quoted with his full endorsement as part of the Afrikan Affirmation series, brought to life by the Es’kia Institute. Needless to add, Achebe’s ideals and values most coincide with those that Es’kia Mphahlele himself celebrated and gave shape to his works. Mphahlele’s belief, for example, in African humanism and his relentless struggle for the dignity of blacks, which transcends the narrow racial divide, are some of the values that these two writers have in common.

Mphahlele, like Achebe, worked tirelessly to validate Africa’s historiography denied by the colonial archive; and like Achebe, Mphahlele taught us to reject the inferiority complex imposed on us and to realise as Achebe would have it, “our history was not a long night of savagery from which the colonisers rescued us”.

Prof Ogude is head of the Department of African Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand; Chinua Achebe is a guest writer of the Es’kia Institute

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