21st March 2015, makes it two years since the passing of the world-renowned Nigerian literary icon and social critic, Chinua Achebe. The man of letters passed on this day in 2013 in a Boston hospital after a brief illness, leaving many Nigerians in shock and rattling the literary world.
The much-admired Professor Achebe meant (and still means) different things to different people. He was described by South African Nobel Laureate, Nadine Gordimer, as the father of modern African literature.
Likewise, South Africa’s anti-apartheid hero and former President, Nelson Mandela, eulogized him as the one who “brought Africa to the rest of the world” and as “the writer in whose company the prison walls came down” during his 27-year incarceration in Robben Island.
As flattering as they may seem, these plaudits are not out of place. Achebe was indeed one of a kind. He laid the foundations of what is now known as modern African literature with the publication of his magnum opus, *Things Fall Apart*. Putting it succinctly, he was to the indigenous African literature what Dante Alighieri was to the Italian language and what St. Paul was to Christianity.
He didn’t invent African literature, neither was he the first African to tell a story or write a novel about Africa or Africans, but it was he who produced the first African work that caught the eye of the world and finally made them pay attention to African literature.
It was like the discovery of a new world, akin to the “discovery” of a “lost” territory by an explorer. *Things Fall Apart*, published 57 years ago in 1958, was not like other African works before it; it managed to draw the curiosity of the global audience who previously thought of African literature as literature about Africa, Africans and the African way of life by Europeans.
Works like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes and Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke’s Out of Africa easily come to mind in this regard.
Upon publication, it swiftly gained the acceptance and respect of the international community. Achebe’s perspicuous, firsthand exposition and description of Africa, its people and their erstwhile little-known culture led the non-Africans into a thrilling imaginary journey to the “dark” world of the black man. His masterly fusion of tasteful local proverbs was the icing on the cake.
*Things Fall Apart* has since become a staple in schools across the world.
So far, the seminal work has sold over 12 million copies worldwide and has been translated into over 60 languages, making it the most widely read book in modern African literature and Achebe, in the words of the New York State Senate, “the most paraphrased African writer of all time.” American talk show queen and billionaire entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey described it as one of the “Five Books Everyone Must Read At Least Once.”
However, Achebe’s fame and success go beyond *Things Fall Apart*; there was much more to him than one novel. In the course of a career spanning nearly 60 years, he published and edited dozens of other equally well-received and popular works, such as *No Longer at Ease,* *Arrow of God, A Man of the People, Chike and the River, Anthills of the Savannah, An Image of Africa: Racism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, The Trouble With Nigeria and There Was A Country.*
In addition to being an adept storyteller and wordsmith, Achebe was also a distinguished academic and teacher. As a Professor of English and Literature, he lectured in the classrooms of several prestigious institutions the world over, including, but not limited to, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), Bard College and Brown University – an Ivy League school where he was a David and Marianna Fisher university professor of Africana Studies till his death.
His tireless efforts and doggedness over the years were rightly rewarded with numerous awards and recognitions. In his lifetime, Achebe was a recipient of over 40 doctorates *honoris causa* from respectable institutions around the world, like the University of Kent, Harvard University, University of Toronto, Dartmouth College, Brown University and the University of Cape Town; the 2008 edition of the prestigious Man Booker International Prize; and the 2010 edition of the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize – an award given to “a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.”
Though it’s been two years since his death, Achebe has continued to inspire generations of African writers, activists, philosophers, historians and art lovers who have been opportune to have come in contact his timeless works.
Among the most prominent are award-winning novelist and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama and African-American Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison.
Despite these towering achievements, it seems that the Nigerian government has not come to terms with the potentials in his greatness. Achebe has been arguably Nigeria’s biggest ever export; most non-Nigerian’s first exposure to Nigeria came through Achebe’s books. I once came across a piece on the internet written by a Kenyan where he narrated how he looked forward to visiting Nigeria for the mere reason of having a taste of our jollof rice because of the savoury way it was described in one of Achebe’s books.
Sadly, for such an icon, the Nigerian government has not done enough to immortalize him the way it should have done. Achebe is a Nigerian brand that ought to be utilized the way England utilized William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, J. R. R. Tolkien and Agatha Christie, the way Colombia utilized Gabriel García Márquez, the way Germany and the Czech Republic utilized Franz Kafka, the way Russia utilized Leo Tolstoy, and the way the United States utilized Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway and Ralph Waldo Emerson. But, as usual, our government is more interested in politicking, acquiring wealth and winning elections than it is in governance and image laundering.
Be that as it may, it is not the exclusive preserve of the government to promote its own, though the buck stops with them. Well-meaning individuals should take it up and spread the Achebe gospel. Nigerians should come together to ensure that the international community sees that good things can come from Nigeria. Nigeria must not only be associated with terrorism, corruption and internet frauds. This they can do that by ensuring that Achebe lives on, to sell the Chinua Achebe brand to the world, because as it stands, only 1 per cent of this brand has been utilized. The possibilities are enormous.
-Chinedu Rylan George
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