A mighty tree has fallen: Chinua Achebe 1930-2013

Chinua Achebe 1930-2013

Chinua Achebe 1930-2013

Chinua Achebe has died, at the age of 82. He leaves a legacy that will live on for generations.

He told a different story of Africa, perhaps best summed up by a Igbo proverb he liked to quote:

“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

Achebe was a historian of the lions, telling the story of colonialism in Africa from an African perspective. And by doing so, he changed not just African literature, but African politics as well, forever.

His classic novel Things Fall Apart (1958) made his name:

“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

“And at last the locusts did descend. They settled on every tree and on every blade of grass; they settled on the roofs and covered the bare ground. Mighty tree branches broke away under them, and the whole country became the brown-earth colour of the vast, hungry swarm.”

Kwame Anthony Appiah noted the extent of the book’s impact:

“It would be impossible to say how ‘Things Fall Apart’ influenced African writing. It would be like asking how Shakespeare influenced English writers or Pushkin influenced Russians. Achebe didn’t only play the game, he invented it.”

But it may well be his 1975 essay, An Image of Africa, critiquing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, that made the most waves:

“Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world.”

That such attitudes persist to this day only goes to show the scale of the challenge he took on. But more than anyone else, it was Achebe who made it clear how ridiculous they are.

Let me end with one more quote, one that any outsider in Africa – journalist, development worker, writer or whoever – would do well to remember:

“Nobody can teach me who I am. You can describe parts of me, but who I am – and what I need – is something I have to find out myself.”