News of Chinua Achebe’s passing struck me with a deep sadness; a sense that an era of Nigerian history is closing and that the guiding lights in the night sky of our national odyssey are dimming. The imagery is of a boat being set adrift from its trusty anchors. Achebe was one of those anchors.
Achebe did not stumble upon his craft by accident. He was initially admitted into the University of Ibadan on a scholarship to read medicine before electing to study English Literature, History and Religion instead. His decision cost him the scholarship but gained him his true vocation. He once declared that his calling as a novelist was “to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement.” Interestingly, the author most acclaimed as his natural successor, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, trod a similar path, leaving the University of Nigeria, Nsukka after a year and a half of studying medicine, to pursue her calling in writing. Finding one’s true place in the world often requires us to sacrifice the certainty of the popular paths to prestige and worldly wealth.
Christopher Okigbo the poet, Wole Soyinka the dramatist and Chinua Achebe the novelist constituted the literary trinity of their generation, all maestros in their chosen domains of artistic expression. Their travails at the hands of the state typified the perpetual battle between the realm of power and that of ideas. Okigbo took up arms for Biafra and was killed during the civil war, a death which deeply wounded Achebe. Soyinka, who had embarked upon a personal peace mission to the separatist regime in Biafra in 1967 in a bid to avert the war, was arrested by the Gowon regime and spent most of the war period in jail. In later years, he would flee into exile to escape the death squads of the Abacha junta. Achebe narrowly escaped assassination in the 1960s by forces who believed that his novel A Man of the People, which predicted the overthrow of the First Republic, indicated his complicity in treasonable activities. He was a Biafran functionary during the war. In 1990, a car accident in Lagos left him paralyzed from the waist down. Subsequently, he relocated to the United States where he held a teaching appointment until his passing last week.
Oddly enough, my first encounter of Achebe was not Things Fall Apart, the iconic novel and his best known work which earned him international repute and has been translated into dozens of languages. It was The Trouble with Nigeria, a stirring 1983 polemic brimming with righteous indignation at what his country had become. It was a searing indictment of his generation and his forebears and, as a work of social criticism, is startlingly relevant to our current struggles even though it was written thirty years ago. “We have lost the twentieth century,” he fumed; “Are we bent on seeing that our children also lose the twenty-first?” Soyinka would echo Achebe’s words in a 1984 essay in which he famously described his generation as a “wasted generation.”