Wanjala: Why Achebe was Africa’s finest
What you need to know:
- His fellow countryman, Professor Oladele Taiwo, wrote about him in 1967 thus: “Chinua Achebe has a gift for summing up people and relations poignantly in a couple of sentences.”
- Achebe, for me, was the real doyen of African Letters, for he did not only write that first classic but, unlike some of his contemporaries who only cared for their own writing, he was the editorial advisor for Heinemann’s Educational Publishers African Writer’s Series, which later discovered other writers.
- Achebe was dropped every morning at the conference venue in a gleaming Mercedez Benz. He was a small unassuming artist who spoke of humanity and wisdom.
No African writer will ever live in the cultural memory of this continent and help define African literature like Chinua Achebe did in his 60 years of writing.
His fellow countryman, Professor Oladele Taiwo, wrote about him in 1967 thus: “Chinua Achebe has a gift for summing up people and relations poignantly in a couple of sentences.”
Gerald Moore criticised Achebe’s essays, saying, he lacked an ideological vision: “They do not, like Ngugi’s Homecoming, for example, indicate the direction in which Achebe would like to see his country move” (1980).
And yet in reviewing Achebe’s second novel, Arrow of God (1964), Moore said: “When Achebe uses language with this degree of skill, as he frequently does, he emerges as a novelist of considerable originality and power.”
I first read Chinua Achebe’s short stories and the novel Things Fall Apart (1958) when I was in Form Three at Bungoma Secondary School in 1963.
THE REAL DOYEN
That was my first encounter with African literature. Before then, I had been enraged by the romantic novelists — Rider Haggard, Joseph Conrad, Evelyn Waugh, Joyce Cary, William Plomer, Alan Paton , John Buchan, and Robert Louis Stevenson — who gave me the romantic, idealised portrait of the African as either the noble savage or “an innocent black man trapped by wily cunning of a white Renaissance plotter.”
I read works on European highwaymen and adventurers who plied tumultuous seas and challenged each other in warlike duels on marshes and forest edges.
Our reader was Kenneth Grahame’s Toad of Toad Hall, and we were introduced to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, and Durrell’s My Family and other Animals.
But then along came this American peace corps teacher, who had a trenchant for African fiction. He read African short stories in a shrill incisive voice.
He read from David Cook’s Origin East Africa and an anthology of Nigeria’s new writing, Reflections. He read Chinua’s short stories, and poems by Mabel Segun and John Pepper Clark.
Achebe, for me, was the real doyen of African Letters, for he did not only write that first classic but, unlike some of his contemporaries who only cared for their own writing, he was the editorial advisor for Heinemann’s Educational Publishers African Writer’s Series, which later discovered other writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, John Munonye, Peter Abrahams, Tom Aluko, Wole Soyinka and Alex La Guma.
My Higher School Certificate period between 1966 and 1967 was a quiet one as far as reading African literature was concerned. Our set books included Es’kia Mphahlele’s Down Second Avenue. The bulk of the paper was on Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part One, The Rainbow, a novel by D. H. Lawrence, and Power and the Glory, a novel by Graham Greene about a whisky priest.
I should have known, when I read Achebe’s book a few months before he died, in which he refers to himself as “a British protected child,” that the day of his departure was nigh.
ACHEBE'S SHORT STORY
Occasionally, the former director of the Chinua Achebe Centre in New York, Binyavanga Wainaina, would write in and post something on Achebe on my Facebook page. On writing about my childhood, I always go back to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah and Mongo Beti’s Mission to Kala.
I read about Nwoye, Beatrice (BB), and Jean Marie as young people whose childhood is soured by extreme parental authority.
When I joined the University College, Nairobi, in September 1968 — as the University of Nairobi was known in those days — I not only met Ngugi wa Thiong’o for the first time, but he taught me Things Fall Apart and Arrow Of God. Ngugi had just published his third novel, A Grain of Wheat.
He never compared Achebe’s novels with his own. But Ngugi did not stay long at the University College, Nairobi. He resigned in 1969 and left me at the feet of Adrian Roscoe, who had just completed his doctorate on Nigerian literature.
He talked fondly about Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
Most of what Roscoe taught us appeared in a book, Mother is Gold: A Study in West African Literature (1971). I wrote an essay on Achebe’s novel, A Man of the People, which was later published in a book, Standpoints on African Literature.
Adrian Roscoe was an astute student of Achebe’s fiction. He introduced me to Chinua Achebe’s short stories, especially The Voter. Like Ngugi, Achebe introduced his themes in short story form, and then afterwards expanded them into a novel. The Voter, for me, was the precursor for A Man of the People.
By January 1972, I had graduated with my first degree in Literature and joined the teaching staff of the Department of Literature at the University of Nairobi as an Assistant Lecturer. Taban lo Liyong had taught me how to handle writers and critics.
I attended the Commonwealth Literature Conference, which was organised by David James Rubadiri, the Malawian poet, academic, novelist, and diplomat who was, until recently, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Malawi.
Rubadiri was assisted by his buddy, Robert Serumaga, the playwright. That conference brought together writers from the entire Commonwealth, including Professor Achebe, Lewis Nkosi and Nuruddin Farah.
Achebe was dropped every morning at the conference venue in a gleaming Mercedez Benz.
He was a small unassuming artist who spoke of humanity and wisdom. It was interesting, but he and my PhD supervisor, Professor James E. Stewart, who was also at the conference, struck a special cord.
From the conference came the lasting friendships between the Department of Literature at the University of Nairobi and Achebe.
In 1980, I attended the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany. Achebe was in full bloom as a writer.
He came to the book fair with Nigerian writers and publishers like Cyprian Ekwensi, Buchi Emecheta, Gabriel Okara, Emmanuel Obiechina and Abiola Irele. Achebe did not say much, but the rest of the Nigerians spoke with such guffaw that they drowned the voices of writers from other parts of the continent.
Achebe came to Taifa Hall at the University of Nairobi in 1987, accompanied by my erstwhile classmate, Henry M. Chakava. Achebe was armed with a publication which reminded me of Drum and True Love that published excerpts of his novel, Anthills of the Savannah.
He did his public reading from the glossy magazine. He read his poems celebrating his eccentric friend, poet and publisher, Christopher Okigbo.
As a literary critic, I find Achebe’s essays, Morning Yet on Creation Day, Hopes and Impediments, Home and Exile, most illuminating.