Portrait of Chinua Achebe (1930–2013), Nigerian poet and writer, UK, 20th November 2009. Eamonn McCabe/Getty Images
Chinua Achebe (born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe; November 16, 1930–March 21, 2013) was a Nigerian writer described by Nelson Mandela as one “in whose company the prison walls fell down.” He is best known for his African trilogy of novels documenting the ill effects of British colonialism in Nigeria, the most famous of which is “Things Fall Apart.”
Fast Facts: Chinua Achebe
Occupation: Author and professor
Born: November 16, 1930 in Ogidi, Nigeria
Died: March 21, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts
Education: University of Ibadan
Selected Publications: Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God
Key Accomplishment: Man Booker International Prize (2007)
Famous Quote: “There is no story that is not true.”
Chinua Achebe was born in Ogidi, an Igbo village in Anambra, southern Nigeria. He was the fifth of six children born to Isaiah and Janet Achebe, who were among the first converts to Protestantism in the region. Isaiah worked for a missionary teacher in various parts of Nigeria before returning to his village.
Achebe’s name means “May God Fight on My Behalf” in Igbo. He later famously dropped his first name, explaining in an essay that at least he had one thing in common with Queen Victoria: they had both “lost [their] Albert.”
Achebe grew up as a Christian, but many of his relatives still practiced their ancestral polytheistic faith. His earliest education took place at a local school where children were forbidden to speak Igbo and encouraged to disown their parents’ religion.
At 14, Achebe was accepted into an elite boarding school, the Government College at Umuahia. One of his classmates was the poet Christopher Okigbo, who became Achebe’s lifelong friend.
In 1948, Achebe won a scholarship to the University of Ibadan to study medicine, but after a year he changed his major to writing. At university, he studied English literature and language, history, and theology.
Becoming a Writer
At Ibadan, Achebe’s professors were all Europeans, and he read British classics including Shakespeare, Milton, Defoe, Conrad, Coleridge, Keats, and Tennyson. But the book that inspired his writing career was British-Irish Joyce Cary’s 1939 novel set in southern Nigeria, called “Mister Johnson.”
The portrayal of Nigerians in “Mister Johnson” was so one-sided, so racist and painful, that it awoke in Achebe a realization of the power of colonialism over him personally. He admitted to having an early fondness for Joseph Conrad’s writing, but came to call Conrad a “bloody racist” and said that “The Heart of Darkness” was “an offensive and deplorable book.”
This awakening inspired Achebe to begin writing his classic, “Things Fall Apart,” with a title from the poem by William Butler Yeats, and a story set in the 19th century. The novel follows Okwonko, a traditional Igbo man, and his futile struggles with the power of colonialism and the blindness of its administrators.
Work and Family
Achebe graduated from the University of Ibadan in 1953 and soon became a scriptwriter for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service, eventually becoming the head programmer for the discussion series. In 1956, he visited London for the first time to take a training course with the BBC. On returning, he moved to Enugu and edited and produced stories for the NBS. In his spare time, he worked on “Things Fall Apart.” The novel was published in 1958.
His second book, “No Longer at Ease,” published in 1960, is set in the last decade before Nigeria achieved independence. Its protagonist is Okwonko’s grandson, who learns to fit into British colonial society (including political corruption, which causes his downfall).
In 1961, Chinua Achebe met and married Christiana Chinwe Okoli, and they eventually had four children: daughters Chinelo and Nwando, and twin sons Ikechukwu and Chidi. The third book in the African trilogy, “Arrow of God,” was published in 1964. It describes an Igbo priest Ezeulu, who sends his son to be educated by Christian missionaries, where the son is converted to colonialism, attacking Nigerian religion and culture.
Biafra and “A Man of the People”
Achebe published his fourth novel, “A Man of the People,” in 1966. The novel tells the story of the widespread corruption of Nigerian politicians, and ends in a military coup.
As an ethnic Igbo, Achebe was a staunch supporter of Biafra’s unsuccessful attempt to secede from Nigeria in 1967. The events that occurred and led to the three-year-long civil war that followed that attempt closely paralleled what Achebe had described in “A Man of the People,” so closely that he was accused of being a conspirator.
During the conflict, thirty thousand Igbo were massacred by government-backed troops. Achebe’s house was bombed and his friend Christopher Okigbo was killed. Achebe and his family went into hiding in Biafra, then fled to Britain for the duration of the war.
Academic Career and Later Publications
Achebe and his family moved back to Nigeria after the civil war ended in 1970. Achebe became a research fellow at the University of Nigeria at Nsukke, where he founded “Okike,” an important journal for African creative writing.
From 1972–1976, Achebe held a visiting professorship in African literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. After that, he returned again to teach at the University of Nigeria. He became chair of the Association of Nigerian Writers and edited “Uwa ndi Igbo,” a journal of Igbo life and culture. He was relatively active in opposition politics, as well: he was elected deputy national president of the People’s Redemption Party and published a political pamphlet called “The Trouble with Nigeria” in 1983.
Although he wrote many essays and kept involved with the writing community, Achebe did not write another book until 1988’s “Anthills in the Savannah,” about three former school friends who become a military dictator, an editor of the leading newspaper, and the minister of information.
In 1990, Achebe was involved in a car crash in Nigeria, which damaged his spine so badly he was paralyzed from the waist down. Bard College in New York offered him a job teaching and the facilities to make that possible, and he taught there from 1991–2009. In 2009, Achebe became a professor of African studies at Brown University.
Achebe continued to travel and lecture around the world. In 2012, he published the essay “There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra.”
Death and Legacy
Achebe died in Boston, Massachusetts, on March 21, 2013, after a brief illness. He is credited with changing the face of world literature by presenting the effects of European colonization from the point of view of Africans. He specifically wrote in English, a choice that received some criticism, but his intent was to speak to the whole world about the real problems that the influence of Western missionaries and colonialists created in Africa.
Achebe won the Man Booker International Prize for his life’s work in 2007 and received more than 30 honorary doctorates. He remained critical of the corruption of Nigerian politicians, condemning those that stole or squandered the nation’s oil reserves. In addition to his own literary success, he was a passionate and active supporter of African writers