Debunking the Chinua Achebe legacy

Unarguably he was one of the most-read writers from the African continent, selling more than 8 million copies of his books and garnering for himself over 30 honorary degrees from universities in England, Scotland and the United States among others. His book Things Fall Apart is the most widely read book in African literature and the most translated (to over 50 languages).

Written by Elizabeth Namakula

While a whirlwind of tributes has poured in in the wake of Achebe’s death, we have been left to ponder his contributions to African literature and the literature body generally, and to see if he rightfully deserved the continent’s honor: The father of modern African literature. And while at it, also weigh the relevance of his work to the present generation.

Chinua Achebe speaking at Asbury Hall, Buffalo, as part of the “Babel: Season 2” series by Just Buffalo Literary Center, Hallwalls, & the International Institute. Photo by Stuart C. Shapiro.

Through his various works, Achebe stressed the African perspective to the story of colonialism in Nigeria as seen through the novels Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, which in their unique way reveal the clash between the Igbo and the British in Nigeria. First from the perspective of a Nigerian father (Okonkwo) in Things Fall Apart, and then the perspective of his European educated son (Obi) in No Longer at Ease.

Before Achebe, the African narrative had been bequeathed to Amos Tutuola (The Palm-Wine Drinkard), Camara Laye (The African Child) and several others. As it turned out, they were inefficient. The likes of Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness) and Joyce Cary (Mister Johnson) hijacked it and represented only one broad perspective of Africa. Justifying the proverb that goes, “Until the lion learns to speak, the tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter.”

“The white man was generally good and reasonable, intelligent and courageous. The savages in comparison were sinister, stupid and at the most, cunning. I hated their guts,” Achebe has said recalling visits to his secondary school library.

Upon becoming older he must have resolved, that what he experienced as a young reader must never happen again to another. Maybe this was inspiration for his future work, which would enable Africans to pick up a book and see themselves as they really were, and not as the foreigners loved to see them.

In Things fall Apart, Okonkwo is depicted as a man who commits suicide because he cannot tolerate the self-hatred he is forced to adopt to please his colonial masters. An act which led to the view that rarely do cultures meet on an equal footing.

“The feet-stamping, body-swaying, eyes-rolling Africans portrayed in Heart of Darkness were devoid of all humanity. They were trapped in a ‘primordial barbarity’ which had no faith or feeling.” (Achebe: An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’)

Even though later he was criticized for reading racism into a novel that was a general description of the traveler’s experiences, Achebe never recanted his position.

Okweri Isaac, a fan of Achebe’s work for many years, echoes these feelings:

“My father didn’t leave me much, but among the things he passed down to me was a copy of Things Fall Apart, which I have since passed onto my son. I believe my father gave me this book with the hope that I will not forget my heritage and lose myself in the wave of this so-called civilization, where the only room it gives us to be in is the backroom fit for the uncouth.”

Colonial hangover

However, Achebe did not only wrote about the collision between Africa and the Western civilization. In the essay The Trouble with Nigeria he urges that the people who once were colonized have ended up enslaving their own, and he particularly pours contempt on the corrupt and self-centered African elite who he blames for the continent’s woes.

Kulumba Kuteesa, a student of the Literature Department at Makerere University, had this to say in relation to this:

“I am very sure that Chinua Achebe was trying to put across a point in writing these books. So I am asking myself and others, what have we done with the books rather than shoving them under our beds? I am more disappointed in the elite of today because they are not doing any work. They are not writing useful books and neither are they doing any constructive criticism other than jumping to bed with any corrupt government that will enrich their coffers.”

Betty Kamya, the founder of Uganda Federal Alliance and former Vice President of FDC, seems to agree with Achebe as well:

“I fell in love with Chinua Achebe when I was still a teenager. This was after I had read Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease. To this day, I still remember with clarity the things I read, and I can only say that each generation has its challenges. The 1950s generation had started to take exception to the colonial hangover that the African elite at the time were suffering from.

Years later, I regret that we have not liberated our minds from the colonial hangover. The Chinese and Indian have held on to their culture and you can see what they have accomplished financially. So his work is still relevant to us and it’s my call to the young generation to let Achebe rest in peace by embracing the generational challenge. Give us back the Africa that we can be proud of.”

Shaping the course of modern African writing

Achebe also served as the advisory editor for the first hundred titles at Heinemann between 1962 and 1964. During one of his visits to Makerere University, he was asked to read a novel by a student, James Ngugi (later known as Ngugi wa Thiong’o) called Weep Not, Child. Later it was selected as one of the first titles of Heinemann’s African Writers Series.

He must have read hundreds of manuscripts during his tenure there, and single-handedly shaping the course of modern African writing, especially the novel, and because of that, it is impossible to imagine contemporary African literature without his influence.

From 2009 until his death, he was serving as a professor at Brown University in the US. During his lifetime, he received The Nigerian Order of Merit which is Nigeria’s highest honor for academic work.  It is said that Nelson Mandela, while recalling his time as a political prisoner, referred to Achebe as the writer, “In whose company the prison walls fell down.”

And celebrated American author Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) heaped praise on Things Fall Apart as the book wherein all readers meet their brothers, sisters, parents and friends along Nigerian roads.

That is quite a milestone for an African writer, justifying the widely held view that he was the father of modern African literature.

Having said that, does it still stand that his legacy is uncontested for?

How come he failed to win the much revered Nobel Prize in Literature and instead it went to his Nigerian counterpart, Wole Soyinka? Why be so against Western civilization and then use the English medium for your works? Why be so much against imperialism when for more than thirty years you choose to live abroad and die on foreign soil? Why abdicate your Christian name, yet your father was a minister in the Protestant Church Mission Society?

Then there was that participation and involvement in the Biafra war, going as far as becoming an ambassador for the secessionists. These and more paradoxes lead to the questioning of his legacy as some Ugandans felt even though the majority chose to heap praises on him.

Referring to Achebe’s use of the English language in all his works, Dr Susan Kiguli, author of the highly acclaimed book The African Saga, had this to say:

“Achebe was once asked why he used the English language yet he appeared as resenting the white man’s intrusion in Africa. He responded with this, ‘I will use the English language because it has been given to me and I cannot run away from it. It will be an African English though.’ Hence his romance with African proverbs littered throughout his works.”

However responding to the dropping of Christian names as Achebe did with his (he was christened Albert Chinualumogu Achebe), she said:

“I don’t use the name Susan for the reason that it is a Jewish name. It does not come to me as a colonial name; rather it’s a sentimental name that has been passed down to me from a long line of beautiful women. It is part of my heritage and it belongs to a face I can identify with.”

On failing to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, which Wole Soyinka won in 1988, Achebe himself said:

“My position is that the Nobel is important. But it is a European prize, not an African prize. Literature is not a heavyweight championship. Nigerians may think, you know, this man has been knocked out, but it’s nothing to do with that.”

A person named Rugambwa, (he personally requested not to use his Christian name Steve just like Achebe dropped Albert) in response also added:

“Achebe didn’t need the Nobel Prize; his achievements surpassed the Nobel by far. I have learnt a lot from him. In his own way, he was an activist turning down two Merit Awards from the Nigerian government because of corruption. He was also a pan-Africanist. It’s not totally true he was anti-western; there were some good ideas like the use of English that he incorporated in his writing.”

The Achebe Prize

On April 6th, in the wake of Achebe’s death, Makerere Institute of Social Research and the University’s Literature Department announced that a literary prize in honor of Achebe was to be launched. This generated a buzz among an audience full of students, Fountain Publishers, professors and other Makerere alumni. At its end, shs 5,000,000 for the Prize had been pledged with shs 1,000,000 to be spent yearly.

Professor Mahmood Mamdani said that contributions for the Achebe Prize are still welcome. The MISR Director further added, “The prize is meant to get people to focus on life as it is lived in Africa.”

The Achebe Prize will be for undergraduate students only.

Nakisanze Segawa, a writer with Femrite decried the Achebe Prize, saying, “How come there wasn’t one set up in the name of Okot P’Bitek. It is so Ugandan not to treasure our own and go to Nigeria to look for role models. Okot taught in this very University, and they won’t honor him but will honor Achebe?”

In another twist of irony, Chike Isaac, a Nigerian, said, “Back home in Nigeria, they may not start the commemorations till next year. But just so you know, he was a great writer who got plunged into the Nigerian politics in the Biafra civil war.”

In conclusion, it is pointless to simply pour praise on Achebe and yet at the same time, it is totally unforgivable to forget his contribution to African Literature. So, I will end with his own words, “If you don’t like someone else’s story, go ahead and write your own.”

Simply put, if you don’t like his legacy, go ahead and make your own, but whatever you do, don’t stop trying!

Elizabeth Namakula is a freelance writer living in Kampala, Uganda. Her short story “A World of Our Own” was recently published in the Femrite-collection “World of Our Own”.