Chinua Achebe: The Eagle on the Iroko

When the elephant passes, knives of myriad shapes and sizes slash away their chunks from it’s mammoth sides. When a great hero is celebrated, various sages offer a festival of encomiums of his great exploits. When the maiden product of the literary Iroko turns golden, the literary kids come to perch and to sing. For, it is impossible to separate the man from his art, especially when that artistic product has become a world classic, the exponent of the quintessential African fiction and the trail-blazer and prototype of the post colonial novel.

We celebrate 50 years of Things Fall Apart and we celebrate the creator of Things Fall Apart. Albert Chinualumogu Achebe. The story of this great and universal man of letters; this master of story-telling; this frontliner teacher of African values. lores and mores; has been told and re-told, leaving even much yet to be told. Every new and sharp knife finds fresh and lean meat to cut in great chunks.

Chinua Achebe as he later preferred and is known, was born into an emerging world of cultural syncretism-an age in which colonialism was taking its firm root and the indigenous culture was being greatly assailed to the extent that things began to fall apart-things are stiIl (prophetically and uneanningly falling apart) in Nigeria, in Africa and in the globe. Thus, Isaiah Okafor and Janet N Achebe, who fetched Chinua to the world on November 16. 1930 in Ogidi, Anambra State, Nigeria, were both devout Christians-the father is an evangelist.

But the environment to which he was born was a thriving cauldron of indigenous Igbo culture, where the masquerade cults were irritant and where proverbs provide the tasty oil with which yams of words arc eaten. Thirty-one years later, in 1961, he married Christie Chinwe Okoli. who bore him ‘God’s bits of wood’ Chinelo, Ikechukwu, Chidi and Nwando. Chinua Achebe attended Government College, Umuahia between 1944 and 1947 recievcd the Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of London in 1953, having studied English, History and Religion at the University College Ibadan. where his peers of the literary fraternity, Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark. Christopher Okigbo, also studied.

We celebrate Achebe because he cleared the path and carved a canon for the germination and blossoming of Modern African fiction. He is not the first Nigerian novelist. Cyprian Ekwensi and Amos Tutuola wrote their first novels before him. But it was Things Fall Apart that provided the counter-factual response to the colonialist paternalistic perception of Africa-as we found in the racist fiction of Joyce Carry in Mister Johnson and Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness.

The novel was regarded as a classic-one of the half-dozen best European novels, and it gave the imperialist perspective or Africa. Things Fall Apart, is the classic African novel which gave a fitting reconstruction of that pejoration. He reconstructed and transmuted the conventions, cannons and aesthetics of the novel, a European art into African Literature which carries African thought. African message, African rhythm and flow, while profoundly enriching that language in a way no English man could ever do with his own language.

We serenade Achebe today because he gave the pristine form and essence to post-colonial literature. In Things Fall Apart, all the post-colonial nations found a mirror into their own history, life and culture before and around colonialism. As Maya Angelou aptly asserts, in Things Fall Apart, ‘All readers meet their brothers, sisters, parents, friends and themselves along Nigerian roads’.

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is one of the few novels, which have been translated into about fifty other languages across the world, with many more to come. But the novel is, essentially, the proponent of the many great works of fiction, poetry, polemics and scholarship that have emitted from the pen or this partraich of African fiction and a ‘magical writcr who has been correctly described as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century and I dare say of all times.

Peruse and ponder this staggering output: Things Fall Apart, 1958. No Longer at Ease, 1960, The Sacrificial Egg and Other Stories, 1962, Arrow of God, 1964, A Man of the People, 1966, Chike and the River, 1966, Beware, Soul-Brother and Other Poems, 1971, How the Leopard Got His Claws (with John Iroaganachi), 1972, Girls at War, 1973, Christmas at Biafra and Other Poems, 1973, Morning Yet on Creation Day, 1975, The Flute, 1975, The Drum, 1978, Don’t Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo (edited with Dubem Okafor), 1978, Aka Weta: An Anthology of Igbo Poetry (co-editor), 1982, The Trouble With Nigeria, 1984, African Short Stories, 1984, Anthills of the Savannah 1988, Hopes and Impediments, 1988. In spite of this prodigious volumes for Chinua Achebe, it is certainly not yet morning on creation day, as we may yet be feasted with his ultimate masterpiece.

Is it therefore any wonder that, the great artificer whom the feminist scholar Elaine Showalter referred to in her citation on the occasion of the award of the ” Man Booker Prize as the man who ‘ illuminated the path for writers around the world seeking words and forms for new realities and societies’ has been decorated with thirty honorary degrees from across world universities. The Nobel Prize may yet come, but Achebe is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards including the Commonwealth Prize for Literature, the Honorary Fellowship of American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Man Booker Prize, and very significantly from the home front, the maiden issue of the Nigerian National Order of Merit Award.

Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest masquerade dances last in the African performance tradition. Madiba Mandela, must offer the last word in this citation when he defined Achebe as the ‘writer in whose company the prison walls fall down’.


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