#OneNGWeekly (episode 35): Life History of Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe was born ‘Albert Chinualumogu’ on November 15, 1930, in Ogidi in Eastern Nigeria. His family belonged to the Igbo tribe, and he was the fifth of six children. Representatives of the British government that controlled Nigeria convinced his parents, Isaiah Okafor Achebe and Janet Ileogbunam, to abandon their traditional religion and follow Christianity. Achebe was brought up as a Christian, but he remained curious about the more traditional Nigerian faiths. He was educated at a government college in Umuahia, Nigeria, and graduated from the University College at Ibadan, Nigeria, in 1954.

Childhood and Early Life

·    He was born as Albert Chinualumogu Achebe in Nigeria to Isaiah Okafo Achebe and Janet Ilogbunam. He had five surviving siblings.
·    His parents had stopped practicing their traditional religion and had converted to Christianity. Therefore as a young boy Achebe was exposed to a combination of traditionalism as well as Christian influence.
·    Storytelling was a part of their rich Nigerian tradition and he grew up listening to the stories told by his family members.
·    He joined St. Philip’s Central School in 1936. He was a very bright student and appreciated by his teachers.
·    He was accepted into the highly prestigious Government College in Umuahia in 1944. An exceptionally brilliant student, he completed his studies there in just four years instead of the standard five. He loved the library and spent hours reading books by different authors.
·    He got admitted as a Major Scholar in Nigeria’s first university, the University College in 1948 and was also given a scholarship to study medicine. However his interest was not in medicine and he shifted to study English, history and theology, and lost his scholarship in the process.
·    He started writing while at the university and made his debut as an author with his article ‘Polar Undergraduate’ in the ‘University Herald’ in 1950. He also wrote numerous other stories, essays and letters during this time. He graduated from the college in 1953.
Career

·    He worked as a teacher at a small school in a dilapidated building for four months. He encouraged his students to develop a reading habit.
·    In 1954, he got an opportunity to work for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS) in Lagos. His job was to prepare scripts for oral delivery. His experience there helped him in writing realistic dialogues later on in his writing career.
·    During this time he also began working on a novel. As a student he had been critical of the manner in which European writers portrayed Africa and its culture, and was determined to depict his culture realistically himself.
·    He was inspired by the works of the Nigerian writer Cyprian Ekwensi who was primarily an exception in the literary world which had seen few other notable writers from Nigeria.
·    He was appointed at the Staff School run by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1956 and this gave him the chance to go to London and get feedback on the novel he was working on.
·    After editing and revising his novel, he sent it to a London company for publishing. His debut novel, ‘Things Fall Apart’ was released in 1958. The book was well received, and ‘The Observer’ called it ‘an excellent novel’.
·    His second novel, ‘No Longer at Ease’ (1960) dealt with a man who gets entangled in a world of corruption and is arrested for taking a bribe.
·    He became the Director of External Broadcasting at the NBS and helped to create the Voice of Nigeria network. The network’s first broadcast transmission was on New Year’s Day 1962.
·    He attended an executive conference of African writers in English in Uganda where he met other prominent writers from around the world including Kofi Awoonor, Wole Soyinka and Langston Hughes.
·    His novel ‘Arrow of God’ was out in 1964, followed by ‘A Man of the People’ in 1966.
·    In 1967, he along with a friend Christopher Okigbo started a publishing company called Citadel Press to promote better quality of African literature available to children.
·    He became a research fellow and later a professor of English at the University of Nigeria in 1976 and held this post till 1981.
·    He spent most of the 1980s traveling, attending conferences and delivering speeches.
·    His novel ‘Anthills of the Savannah’ published in 1987 was about a military coup in a fictional African land.
·    In 1990, he was involved in a tragic car accident that left him paralyzed from waist below; he would have to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
·    The disability, however, could not demoralize the courageous writer and he became the Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College, New York.
·    In 2009 he became a member of the Brown University faculty as the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor of Africana Studies.


Achebe was unhappy with books about Africa written by British authors such as Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) and John Buchan (1875–1940), because he felt the descriptions of African people were inaccurate and insulting. While working for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation he composed his first novel, Things Fall Apart(1959), the story of a traditional warrior hero who is unable to adapt to changing conditions in the early days of British rule. The book won immediate international recognition and also became the basis for a play by Biyi Bandele. Years later, in 1997, the Performance Studio Workshop of Nigeria put on a production of the play, which was then presented in the United States as part of the Kennedy Center's African Odyssey series in 1999. Achebe's next two novels, No Longer At Ease (1960) and Arrow of God (1964), were set in the past as well.

By the mid-1960s the newness of independence had died out in Nigeria, as the country faced the political problems common to many of the other states in modern Africa. The Igbo, who had played a leading role in Nigerian politics, now began to feel that the Muslim Hausa people of Northern Nigeria considered the Igbos second-class citizens. Achebe wrote A Man of the People (1966), a story about a crooked Nigerian politician. The book was published at the very moment a military takeover removed the old political leadership. This made some Northern military officers suspect that Achebe had played a role in the takeover, but there was never any evidence supporting the theory.

Political crusader

During the years when Biafra attempted to break itself off as a separate state from Nigeria (1967–70), however, Achebe served as an ambassador (representative) to Biafra. He traveled to different countries discussing the problems of his people, especially the starving and slaughtering of Igbo children. He wrote articles for newspapers and magazines about the Biafran struggle and founded the Citadel Press with Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo. Writing a novel at this time was out of the question, he said during a 1969 interview: "I can't write a novel now; I wouldn't want to. And even if I wanted to, I couldn't. I can write poetry—something short, intense, more in keeping with my mood." Three volumes of poetry emerged during this time, as well as a collection of short stories and children's stories.
After the fall of the Republic of Biafra, Achebe continued to work at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, and devoted time to the Heinemann Educational Books' Writers Series (which was designed to promote the careers of young African writers). In 1972 Achebe came to the United States to become an English professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (he taught there again in 1987). In 1975 he joined the faculty at the University of Connecticut. He returned to the University of Nigeria in 1976. His novel Anthills of the Savanna (1987) tells the story of three boyhood friends in a West African nation and the deadly effects of the desire for power and wanting to be elected "president for life." After its release Achebe returned to the United States and teaching positions at Stanford University, Dartmouth College, and other universities.

His Books:
No Longer at Ease (1960)
Arrow of God (1964)
Anthills of the Savannah (1987)
A Man of the People (1966)
There was a Country (2012)
The Trouble with Nigeria (1983)
An Image of Africa (1977)
Girls at War (1972)
Home and Exile (2000)
Hopes and Impediments (1988)
Beware Soul Brother (1971)
Chike and the River (1966)
The Education of a British-protected child (2009)
The Leopard got his claws (1972)
Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975)
Collected Poems (1973)
The Voters (1994)
Conversation with Chinua Achebe (1997)
Another Africa (1998)
Le monde s’effondre (1972)
The African Trilogy (1988)
The flute (1977)
The university and the leadership factor in Nigerian politics (1988)
Heimkehr in fremdes Land.
Termitenhügel in der Savanne. Roman.
Winds of Change: Modern Short Stories from Black Africa (Longman Structural Readers) (1977)
The drum (1979)
Things Fall Apart (2000)

Quotes:

One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised.

When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool.

People create stories create people; or rather stories create people create stories.

A man who makes trouble for others is also making trouble for himself.

When old people speak it is not because of the sweetness of words in our mouths; it is because we see something which you do not see.

Art is man's constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him.

The only thing we have learnt from experience is that we learn nothing from experience.

Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.

Award and Achievements
·    He was presented the Man Booker International Prize in 2007 for his literary career. Judge Nadine Gordimer called him the ‘father of modern African literature’ at the Award ceremony.
·    He won The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize in 2010. The annual prize is given to “a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.”

 His Death:

He died on 21st of March 2013 at Boston, Massachusetts, United States



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