Chinua Achebe: African excellence at its best

Achebe’s name is prominent among those who helped demolish the well-constructed myth of superiority of Western culture

Chinua Achebe, known as the Father of African literature, especially fiction, passed away on 21 March. He was in the league of Wole Soyinka, Nadime Gordimer and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who established Black literature in the world. Achebe and his writings have a great significance for a country like India because he was one of the inspirations of Dalit literature, a much-talked about genre these days- a genre which entered the literature of Indian languages via Maharashtra’s Black Panther movement.

Chinua Achebe’s name is prominent among those who helped demolish the well-constructed myth of superiority of Western culture. He not only afforded a place for African writing on the world map but he also gave a befitting reply to the propaganda that Africans were a lesser race. Nelson Mandela described Achebe as a writer who took Africa to the rest of the world and in the company of whom, the prison walls simply ceased to exist. Going a step further, it can be said that Achebe was among the writers who first told us how the Third World nations – and especially the tribal communities inhabiting them – share a common history.

“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”, from these lines of Irish poet WB Yeats’s poem “Second Coming” was born the title of Achebe’s first and most well-known novel Things Fall Apart. In this novel, which has been translated into more than 50 languages and has sold upwards of 12 million copies, Achebe described the historical tragedy of the collapse of the very axis of the African society. The Guardian, in a review of the novel said, “This novel has turned the outlook of the West towards Africa on its head – an outlook that was based on the views of White Colonisers.”

What is this colonial outlook? It is this that the colonization of Africa was aimed at ‘civilizing’ the people who were branded as ‘inferior’, ‘primitive’ and ‘barbarians’. This was the ideological basis that was used to lend legitimacy to the colonization of Africa, Asia, America and Australia by Europe, notwithstanding its blood-soaked history replete with acts of barbarism. Things Fall Apart not only tells the story of Nigeria, it tells the story of all the countries of the world which were enslaved by the Europeans on the patently false plea of “civilizing” them. The novel systematically demolishes the Western propaganda that before the arrival of the Whites, the concepts of governance and justice were alien to the residents of Africa. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe takes the reader to the African tribal society, as it was just before the arrival of the Whites. Though to an outsider this society might seem to be primitive and outside the ambit of modernity, internally, this society too was informed by the quest for peace, justice and governance – the same quest on which modern Europe prides itself. Achebe pits the so-called barbaric African society against the “civilized European society” and demonstrates how the traditional socio-cultural and political institutions of the African society were destroyed after the arrival of the Whites. It would not be surprising, if, while reading Things fall Apart, one might remember Sidho-Kanu and Birsa Munda rising in revolt in the Chota Nagpur plateau for the protection of their liberty and their traditional culture and religious beliefs.

Clearly, Chinua Achebe knew that he is not merely a word-smith but he has to use words to rebuild a history that was humiliated and effaced from human memory. His trilogy of novels on Africa –Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God and No Longer At Ease – stand testimony to this endeavour of his.

The perpetual struggle between the writer and the historian within him is palpable in Chinua Achebe’s writings. In an interview he had once said, “A writer is not merely a writer. He is a citizen too.” Achebe believed that the very existence of serious and fine literature is in aid of humanity. His love for not only African but the entire exploited humanity comes through very clearly in his writings.

Published in the May 2013 issue of the Forward Press magazine

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