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Remembering The Art of Chinua Achebe in a Time Like This


By Chuka Nnabife

Being a keynote presentation by CHUKA I. NNABUIFE (2348026472357, 2348111813091, chukfornaija@gmail.com, www.chukannabuifeissues.com) during the Fifth Yearly Literary Festival and Memorial Lecture on Prof. Chinua A. Achebe organised by the Society of Young Nigerian Writers (SYNW) on Tuesday, November 16, 2021, at the Anambra State Central e-Library (Prof. Kenneth Dike e-Library), Awka



Chinua Achebe achieved greatness in the field of literature mainly because of his defined mission, the relevance of his art to his society; his unrivalled creative storytelling skills and tenacity. He was an artist, crusader, scholar, and unrelenting chronotoger of African (Igbo) culture. Had he been around in time like this, he would write profusely.



A snake does not give birth to what does not look like it. For a snake to bear its parent's name, it must be long, limbless, look like a rope and be defensively dangerous.

The globally eminent Nigerian writer and culture articulator, Chinua Achebe makes us aware of, the Igbo worldview that, the society must know where a man is coming from, what he stands for and his worth, before he is acclaimed, which attributes to the lacklustre social profile of the largely misunderstood British district officer, Captain Winterbottom, a major character in ‘Arrow of God’. The colonial administrator, whom “nobody knows his father” or where he comes from just could not connect effectively withe native Igbo community Umuofia where the story was set.  

As a writer, critic, active citizen and conscience of society, Chinua Achebe (1930 – 2013) was very conscious of this maxim of his native Igbo people. He evidently worked extremely hard to establish his voice, his perspectives. Through his works of fiction and non-fiction, we know his values, his interests and vision. The huge success and acclaim he made using, in particular, his unrivalled skills in literature as well as activism and academic scholarship, made the world know who he was (is); what he stood for, and without doubt what he could have done in any given times. Hence, though there is no art yet to unravel the minds of men, as William Shakespear stated with hindsight, we can argue what Chinua Achebe would offer our African, Nigerian and Igbo society in a time like the one we have currently.  



Chinua Achebe: Writer, Social Crusader, Scholar, Linguistic Stylist, Forerunner:


Born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe was born on November 16, 1930 at St. Simon’s Church, Nnobi, Nigeria, the writer with the penname ‘Chinua Achebe’ was named among the most famous and influential literary figures of 20th Century African writers. He won the Man Booker International Prize for his body of work in 2008. He hailed from Ogidi, a major town that is currently in Idemili North Local Government Area of Anambra State of the South-East Zone of Nigeria. His first novel, ‘Things Fall Apart’, published in 1958 is now on book vendor’s shelves in all continents. It has been translated in over 50 languages. He has since published several other rave review novels, collections of his short stories, essays, commentaries and a drama made of it made a record long run in Broadway while things fall apart has been made into films and television series. Chinua Achebe children literature books as well as collections of his conversations on topical issues.

Achebe’s father was a Christian teacher and missionary worker. His mother, aunts and elder sisters were adept folk story tellers. The tales and Chinua Achebe’s keenness to understand his native Igbo culture deeply made impressions on him from his childhood. His father’s desire for all his children to have western education made him and his siblings enrol early in colonial missionary schools. Throughout his years in basic school, Achebe’s brilliance was evident as he remained on top of his class. Twice he completed two grades within a year. In 1948 Achebe began his university career at the University College in Ibadan which was then affiliated to the University of London.  There, he later switched from his undergraduate study of Medicine to English and History.

Upon graduating in 1954, he moved on to teach in the Merchant of Light School, Oba for a very short while before taking the job of a senior broadcasting officer, Eastern Region in Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS). At NBS he met his co-worker and later wife, Christie Chinwe Okoli, whom married him on September 10, 1961.

Achebe’s second novel, ‘No Longer at Ease’ was published in 1960, the year, his native country; Nigeria got her independence from Britain’s colonial rule. He became the editor for the African Writers Series in 1962 and published his third novel, ‘Arrow of God,’ in 1964. Achebe’s fourth novel, ‘A Man of the People’ (1964), explored the country’s largely mismanaged political crises, ethnic tensions, corruption and the military’s over-reaction that rapidly led to Nigeria’s degeneration and a three-year war.

July 1967 through January 1970, Nigeria’s civil war happened to the consternation of some very socially-sensitive young members of Nigeria’s intelligentsia like Achebe and his friend Wole Soyinka, a fellow creative writer and former student of University College, Ibadan, among others. The war pitted Achebe’s Igbo people (who constituted the want-away defunct Biafra Republic) against the rest of Nigeria.  The Igbo people attempted, unsuccessfully, to form their own republic, Biafra. It was a very bloody era in the then very young, less-than-a-decade-old country, Nigeria’s history. Over two million persons, comprising mainly children, women and the aged died in it.  Achebe was actively engaged in publicising the Biafra struggle internationally.  Achebe’s 2012 book, ‘There Was a Country:  A Personal History of Biafra’ would retrospectively, dwell heavily but partly on the war period and its persisting, devastating effect on Nigeria’s wellbeing almost half a century after.

 Upon the war’s end in January 1970, Achebe left Nigeria to the United States of America (USA) where he began his career in academic research. He rose to become a Professor of English of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and later at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. 

He later returned to Nigeria and joined the academic staff of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) where he was a Professor of English. His novel, ‘Anthills of the Savannah’ came out of press in 1987.

He was in UNN until 1990 when he was rushed out of Nigeria following an automobile crash along the Enugu-Onitsha expressway in Awka, Anambra State, which paralysed him, waist-to-feet.

The forced migration to USA for medical reason necessitated his continuing career there. He continued academic research as head of endowed chairs of several universities while receiving medical attention and being actively engaged in creative writing.

Aside novels, Chinua Achebe’s fictions comprised anthologies of his poetry such as ‘The Education of a British-Protected Child’, ‘Beware Soul Brother’ and collections of his short stories including, ‘Girls at War and Other Stories’, ‘The Sacrificed Egg and Other Stories’ as well as such rippling non-fictions as ‘Home and Exile’, ‘The Trouble with Nigeria’, ‘Hopes and Impediments’, ‘Morning Yet on Creation Day’, and many more.

He was a very fecund creator and deeply dexterous commentator with unrivalled gift in communicating his points, lucidly and unambiguously. He was also the author of award-winning children literature tales such as ‘The Flute’, ‘The Drum’, ‘Chike and the River’, among others.

He also shared byelines with other authors and co-edited some books that still set standards in the study of Literature in English in Africa several decades after their emergence.

In 2021, Achebe’s last book, ‘There Was a Country’ was released amid a buzz of rave reviews. He died at the age of 82, in Boston, USA on March 22, 2013.  He was given a state funeral by Anambra State Government in his hometown, Ogidi, amid a flurry of global tributes, same year.

His very teeming clan of followers and students comprising the society of Young Nigerian Writers (SYNW) have since then feted him with post humus accolades and publications. Followers regard him as the ‘eagle on the iroko’, an Igbo expression for the best of breeds on the peak of all platforms.


Chinua Achebe is ranked among the world’s great writers because of the evergreen relevance of his works. His thrusts are salient, while his craft is engaging and illuminating. His interventions came timely on very relevant area(s) of interest to his society and the world. Emerging at a time modern Africa was bursting out of the blues of Europe’s colonialism which determinedly and dastardly reduced the continent to ideological and spiritual rubbles, and to the backwaters of global economy as well as economy the writers opted to tell his native African peoples’ untold story but in a voice that would be fresh, real and attractive despite saying very serious things without any tinge of moaning or being didactic.

From his debut book, ‘Things Fall Apart’ in 1958, he chose a clear social space and set himself, consciously on a zestful global mission to get heard, enjoyed and to leave the reader desirous of more after every work.

Somehow, by design or by happenstance, he let his readers who he had held spellbound for over a half century, know his mission in the Introduction to his very last of over 20 books, ‘There Was a Country’.

Chinua Achebe seemed to have set out early with firm and determined steps. His words in the beginning of his last book tell it all:

An Igbo proverb tells us that a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body.

The rain that beat Africa began four or five hundred years ago, from the discovery of Africa by Europe, through the transatlantic slave trade, to the Berlin Conference of 1885. That controversial gathering of the world’s leading European powers precipitated what we now call the Scramble for Africa, which created new boundaries that did violence to Africa’s ancient societies and resulted in tension-prone modern states. It took place without African consultation or representation, to say the least.

Great Britain was handed the area of West Africa that would later become Nigeria, like a piece of chocolate cake at a birthday party, - Introduction, ‘There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra’ (The Pengium Press, New York, 2012)

“If the Berlin Conference,” Achebe reasoned further, “sealed her fate, then the amalgamation of the southern and northern protectorates inextricably complicated Nigeria’s destiny. Animists, Muslims, and Christians alike were held together by a delicate, some say, artificial lattice.” (Referring to his April 2010 Yale University conversation with Robert Farris Thompson).   

Achebe adds:

Africa’s postcolonial disposition is the result of a people who have lost the habit of ruling themselves. We have also had difficulty running the new systems foisted upon us at the dawn of independence by our “colonial masters. Because the West has had a long but uneven engagement with the continent, it is imperative that it understands what happened to Africa…

It is for the sake of the future of Nigeria, for our children and grandchildren, that I feel it important to tell Nigeria’s story, Biafra’s story, our story, my story....

That was how the writer explained not just his mission in the book but his thrust in almost all his literature and interventions.

As a child, Achebe saw aliens destroy the sacrosancy of his native culture. He beheld the confusion and imbalance the attack caused his people and grew up to old age to see the havoc continue and worsen. With his pen as his only armour he made the world see the rot and wastage of his land. While doing that, he never failed to thrill us.

iii) THE ART

In his work, ‘Homecoming’ the Kenyan writer, Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, one of Chinua Achebe’s  contemporary and Africa’s frontline novelists notes that “literature does not grow or develop in a vacuum: it is given impetus, shape, direction and even area of concern by social, political and economic forces in a particular society.”  

Hence literature is an art in which the artist records life, persons, activities as society offers while plying his art as an art should be done – creative, innovative and suspense-marked.

These qualities are not lost in Achebe’s literary art. He kept faith with recording his society. He played the roles of the griot, the bard, the sage and the historian while still lampooning his society and their adversary like the adept court jester would stand in the presence of even the most dreaded king, tell him discomforting truth and mock him. He equally played the people’s spokesman. Only a highly skilled artist can fit into such roles successfully as he did.  He only opted not take the role of an arbiter like most very educated writers like him would. Achebe was so passionate and involved in his native culture and society that he could not extricate himself from it to play the ostrich in the name of staying on the fence to arbitrate on issues.

In such novels as ‘Things Fall Apart’, ‘No Longer at Ease’ and ‘Arrow of God’ (collectively appraised as Achebe’s ‘African Trilogy’) his ability to play all those artistic roles helped him to dexterously capture his native Igbo society’s nuances and biases under colonial rule; during the twilight of colonialism and in the early years of post-colonial rule, in a manner that no writer before and after him had.  

Achebe strove and captured, in glaring vicissitudes, the complexities, the “humanity” and “vulnerability” of his society with tales upon tales that make his culture politically, pulsative and dramatically engaging. In the bid, he gave other writers incentives and tropes for more works in his area while offering the world a novel literary oeuvre like ancient Greek and Roman writers did to the world or like the Victorian authors did of British and European society.

Author of ‘Purple Hibiscus’, ‘Half off a Yellow Sun’ and other novels, the globally applauded younger Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who is widely regarded as a novelist with a lot of neo-Achebean impetus notes how Achebe’s works, especially the ‘African Trilogy’ offer creative vent, to younger griots thusly:  

In the stark, sheer poetry of ‘Things Fall Apart’, in the humor and complexity of ‘Arrow of God,’ I found a gentle reprimand: Don’t you dare believe other people’s stories of you.

Considering the time and circumstances under which he wrote, perhaps Chinua Achebe sensed that his work would become, for a generation of Africans, both literature and history. He has written that he would be satisfied if his novels did no more than teach his readers that their past ‘was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.’ He has, on occasion, adopted a somewhat anthropological voice in his fiction: ‘fortunately, among these people,’ we are told ‘in Things Fall apart’, “a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father.’ But what is remarkable is that Achebe’s art never sinks under his burden of responsibility. A reader expecting to find simple answers in Chinua Achebe’s work will be disappointed, because he is a writer who embraces honesty and ambiguity and who complicates every situation. His criticism of the effects of colonialism on the Igbo is implicit, but so is his interrogation of the internal structure of Igbo society.

Chinua Achebe understood the functionality of literature as a vehicle for thrilling its audience and as a tool for effecting change in society. Far from the school of thought that favours art for art sake, Chinua Achebe practiced more of a functional art in his literature. He never clowned nor just entertained for the fun of it even when such chances were available. A reading of his children literature showed consistence with the original philosophical concept of connecting the present with the waning ethos of the past and interrogating his Igbo; Nigeria; and African societies’ profligacies and inconsistencies, if aloofness with ‘modern’  socio-cultural realities.

 In themes and tropes Chinua Achebe concentrated on peculiar situations and expressions his Igbo, and by extension, Nigerian cultural values. He subtly used his people’s aphorisms and anecdotes to dart frontally at some developments that challenge their worldviews.

In style of writing, even in poetry and essays on serious political issues, he was consistently keen on getting the reader to understand him, instead of sounding obtuse or deploying language to show boot. Despite being a linguist, he wrote like a communicator with sharp sense of imagery like an award-winning cartoonist who is naturally adept in punch lines and writings that have everlasting visual effect in the reader’s mind.

Ponder how the novelist described how the prime wrestling match in Umuofia in which the  young, emerging Okonkwo defeated the defending champion, Amalinze ‘The Cat’. Excerpt from page 3 of ‘Things Fall Apart’:

The drums beat and the flutes sang and the spectator held their breath.  Amalinze  was  a  willy  craftsman,  but  Okonkwo  was  as slippery as a fish in water. Every nerve and every muscle stood out on their arms, on their thighs, and one almost heard them stretching to breaking point. In the end Okonkwo threw the cat. (p. 3)

Short, direct but rich with spectacles painted in the reader’s mind.

Though sometimes the structure of his narratives is labyrinthine and full of intriguing sub-plots, the proverbs and wit with which he plies the tales make the books difficult to put down.

Chinua Achebe’s Engagement of Society

Writing in the essay, ‘The Role of a Writer: Reflections of a Novelist’, Indian scholar and critic, Prabhu Ray Yadav stated thusly:

Chinua  Achebe  is  an  iconic  name  in  Africa  as  well  as  world literature. He is a writer committed to the social uplift of marginalized and downtrodden people. He believes that serious writer should have a sense of  responsibility  to  enhance  the  quality  of  humanity  by  way  of  exposing all manmade suppression and oppression in society. Achebe is a crusader against colonialism that enslaved the African countries and their people. He is opposed to the injustice and atrocities perpetrated by colonial rulers, and he wants to awaken the African people to rise up against the onslaught of colonialism in future. – (TRIBHUVAN UNIVERSITY JOURNAL, VOL.: 31, NO.: 1 & 2, JUNE/DEC. 2017)

He further described the Nigerian writer as one who writes with “missionary zeal” and “an inspiring guide to the African people and writers to pursue the spirit of struggle to gain self-dignity and recognition …to use their art as a weapon to assert their confidence and past glory” given that “for him, art is a means to bring about change in society.”

According to Yadav, Chinua Achebe, through his works “have served as a teacher for his readers. So, Achebe has become a novelist cum teacher, especially for African people, and in general for his readers all over the world.”

It is interesting to note that one of the most commonly cited non-fiction works of Chinua Achebe is the 1983 book, ‘The Trouble With Nigeria’.

A slim book of 60 pages, but the concise-yet-loaded work encapsulates the politics and metropolitan cultural trends of Nigeria’s Second Republic (1977 – 1983) in an intriguing manner like a scapular summary written by a seasoned editor. One sentence on page 10 actually captures the whole 10-chapter book. That is:

Nigerians are what they are only because their leaders are not what they should be.

But within the book, Chinua Achebe establishes what he deems the social contract a citizen owes his country on page 16.

A true patriot will always demand the highest standards of his country and accept nothing but the best for and from his people. He will be outspoken in condemnation of their short-coming without giving way to superiority, despair or cynicism. That is my idea of a patriot

Through this we get an idea of the writer’s sense of high responsibility to his trade and his society

Therefore, Chinua Achebe was a statesman with his art and hero with his pen as sword. Whenever he found himself or his society challenged, he wrote. Be the land in the quagmire of a confused, as in the largely illiterate African community, pitted against an obnoxious but pretentiously religious European colonialism, he kicked and stepped up to frontline to effect change. Finding himself in a nascent but misdirected country that misguided itself to a war; he stepped to the frontier to express his views. In a rich country with envied natural wealth but mismanaged by incompetent leadership and avaricious politicians, he stepped up and expressed his views and fought like a functional artist and an active citizen would. In a country that mischievously plays glib on her history and suppresses voices of truth, he rose and reminded that, “there was a country”. True to his artistic character, he never idealised whether the said country was better or worse. He left his reader to judge

What Would Chinua Achebe Do In a Time Like This?

Do we really need to ask the question after knowing what he did at previous times?

The current Nigeria is challenged by insecurity; killings; crimes; ethnicity-oriented politics; disregard of cultural  values; fake religiousity; intense politics without noble leadership; unethical professionals on rampage citizens without sense of their responsibility to society and writers without discernable missions or socio-cultural consciousness .

Achebe’s words on page 54 of ‘The Trouble With Nigeria’ the level of degeneration in Nigeria’s society thus:

We have turned out to be like a bunch of stage clowns who bump their heads into the same obstacles again and again

Nigerians are still mired in the same game of self-deceit he observed over four decades ago. Had Chinua Achebe been alive, he would strive to be the difference without painting black, white or being ambiguous. 


Given that is a gathering, largely made up of young ones, granted that the sins of the country which has been committed over a long time cannot be placed on the heads of young ones because as Okonkwo the lead figure of ‘Things Fall Apart’ noted to his mother’s folks after everything his gone bad and he was forced to flee for a seven-year exile in his maternal home, “a child cannot pay for its mother’s milk,” it is clear that none here can solely  solve all the problems of Igbo land, Nigeria or Africa. Chinua Achebe could not even with all his brilliance, opportunities and immense3 talents and relatively long life but he did something remarkable enough, to etch his name in gold, globally and forever. Like Chinua Achebe, we can pick a space and do our best there.



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