Apr 15, 2013
On March 21, Chinua Achebe died in the United States, where he had been teaching for many years at universities. His fame dates back to 1959, when his first book Things Fall Apart was published, to be read by millions around the world.
Achebe was one of the first African writers to reach a worldwide audience in the tumultuous decades following World War II. The growing sentiment for national independence spread, with wars raging in China, Malaysia, Viet Nam. Whole populations would shed “rivers of blood” to free themselves of colonial rule and to attempt to find political unity. In Africa, the British, French, German, Portuguese and Dutch colonial governments were forced to grant political independence after numerous struggles engulfed much of the continent.
Achebe, a Nigerian of the Ibo people, was born in 1930. While he knew the culture of the traditional animist Ibo, his father had converted to Christianity. Achebe received a typical British colonial education. His life would straddle both worlds.
His first novel looked without sentimentality at an Ibo man trying to find his way between traditions and some sort of accommodation to the invading Europeans who would use Christianity as a wedge. They wanted the control of enormous natural resources that could profit their corporations.
Achebe’s later works, No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People and other fictional accounts of a period of transition would cast a sharp satiric eye on “independent” African politicians. Often they became infamous for their venality, brutality and slavish adherence to pleasing their former political masters.
Achebe was not alone in depicting this period in Africa. A white South African, Alan Paton, would publish his look at apartheid Cry the Beloved Country in 1949 from abroad. It took longer for African writers to reach the rest of the world. Besides Achebe in 1959, in 1960 Ousmane Sembene published his novel God’s Bits of Wood, about a revolt of Senegalese railway workers against French colonialism. Also in the 1960s, books about African uprisings would take shape in other novels: the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya against the British depicted by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, whose family took part in it; Ebrahim Hussein on the Tanzanian uprising against German colonialism. Naguib Mahfouz had written of the long battle for Egyptian independence from Britain since the 1950s.
Achebe was able to depict the old ways without condemnation, making the reader aware of its strengths in clan and family ties, but also its brutality, superstitions and rigidity about one’s place in life. He was among the first to point out that European colonial writers depicted Africans in false and condescending ways. He said of Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness that the writer had treated “Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind.” Achebe left a position he had with the Nigerian government when the Biafran war broke out, between the Ibo in the south of Nigeria and the mostly Muslim north.
The title of Things Fall Apart comes from W.B. Yeats’ poem of 1919, part of which reads:
“Things fall apart, the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
The blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
Achebe was well aware that Yeats was reacting to the horrific slaughter of World War I. Achebe also shows us how imperialist politics have had profound consequences for individuals.