Okonkwo is the greatest wrestler and warrior alive, and his fame spreads throughout West Africa like a bush-fire in the harmattan. But when he accidentally kills a clansman, things begin to fall apart. Then Okonkwo returns from exile to find missionaries and colonial governors have arrived in the village. With his world thrown radically off-balance he can only hurtle towards tragedy. A classic in every sense, Chinua Achebe's stark, coolly ironic novel reshaped both Africa and world literature.
Sometime in 1957, an advertisement appeared in the Spectator. The advertiser promised that, for a fee, ‘Authors’ Manuscripts [would be] Typed’. Several thousand miles away in Lagos, the bustling, seaside capital city of the soon-to-be independent British West African colony of Nigeria, an aspiring writer who happened to require the services of a typist came across the advertisement and promptly sent off his manuscript to England. The manuscript, named from a poem by the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, was entitled Things Fall Apart. Its author, the twenty-seven-year-old Chinua Achebe, was a producer with the Nigerian Broadcasting Service. For two years he had occupied his nights and his every free moment with the task of writing, and rigorously editing, the manuscript. It was a staggeringly ambitious work of invocation that was at once a celebration and an interrogation of the mores and culture of the South-eastern Igbo peoples, from whom Achebe descended, and an eloquent rebuttal of the all too casual denigration of Africans by, among others, European writers such as Joseph Conrad (whose quip, about the Congo setting of Heart of Darkness, that he was merely poking around in 'the dead cats of civilization’ has come to define Africa in the western imagination).
For several months after posting his handwritten manuscript for typing, Achebe heard nothing from England. His polite but firm letters to the London address elicited no response. He was close to despair, convinced that it was lost. And it almost was lost but for the intervention of a friend, a British colleague at the Nigerian Broadcasting Service, who during her annual holiday in England took the time to track down the firm of typists. She returned to Nigeria with a typed copy of the manuscript. A year later, in 1958, William Heinemann published Things Fall Apart, the first title in what became the African Writers Series. The book received instant acclaim. It has since sold over ten million copies and has been translated into forty-five languages.
Chinua Achebe was born on I6 November 1930, in Ogidi, Eastern Nigeria. His great uncle, who brought up Achebe's father, had taken the highest-but-one title' in the clan, and was considered to be of such importance that when in the late nineteenth century Anglican missionaries came to Ogidi, and sought support for their work, they were shown to his compound. ‘For a short while he allowed them to operate from his compound,’ Achebe says in an essay written nearly a century later, ‘but after a few days he sent them packing again.’ Not because he found their theology offensive, but because he found their music alarming. ‘Your music is too sad to come from a man’s house,’ Achebe's great uncle told the missionaries, ‘my neighbours might think it was my funeral dirge.’ Achebe's father on the other hand had no such reservations about the new creed. He joined the missionaries, received an education from them, and became, in 1904, a teacher and catechist for the Anglican Church. Achebe grew up in a home where they sang hymns and read the Bible night and day. But he would often sneak across to his ‘heathen’ uncle's compound and partake in pagan festival’s of rice and stew. To his delight, he found in the food no flavour of idolatry. The converts to the new creed looked down on the non-Christians in the village, calling them 'the people of nothing.’ But Achebe did not suffer from an identity crisis over the two cultures contesting for his devotion. He lived at the crossroads of culture and although, as he grew up, he knew to reject, 'all that rubbish [about] the evil forces and irrational passions prowling through Africa's heart of darkness', he felt also that the crossroads did have a certain dangerous potency, ‘because a man might perish there wrestling with multiple-headed spirits, but also he might be lucky and return to his people with the boon of prophetic vision’.
In 1953, at the age of twenty-three Achebe took a degree in English from the prestigious University College, Ibadan, becoming by definition a member of the select élite of educated West Africans who came into adulthood in the 1950s, and who were destined by history to inherit from the colonial powers the task of running the independent nation-states that came into being during the post-Second World War implosion of the empire 'where the sun never sets'. It was a highly educated generation, high achieving and boundless in its aspirations. Its confidence was an embodiment of the all-encompassing spirit of optimism that swept across Africa from desert to coast as emancipation approached. In the wake of the 'Hitler War’, Britain and France had found the task of rebuilding themselves impossible to reconcile with the bedevilled logistics of running empires of continually hostile and endlessly subversive subjects who clamoured for and were in many instances willing to die for — independence.
But the new dawn into which Achebe's generation woke was brief, a conjurer's trick. Even as independence approached, the African states which Winston Churchill had characterized as being nothing but ‘a mere geographical expression' were still afflicted with the debilitating psychosis of their nineteenth-century birth at the Berlin conference hosted by Bismarck. Here they were arbitrarily conjured into existence by an alliance of expansionist European powers who had come together to stake their claims to the treasure trove known as Africa, which they considered theirs to share, and to negotiate the ground rules for sharing it. They had gathered to partition 'the Dark Continent'. Thus began the so-called 'scramble for Africa', the age of empire. In partitioning Africa, they replaced the cartographer’s terra incognita with a map in which ancient foes were Balkanized and forced to live cheek-by-jowl, and whole nations were atomized and divided into states defined no longer by their shared culture, their common heritage, but by the European flags which now held sway over them. Bismarck's conference invented the topography of simmering hatred that would be later utilized by his African clones, that perennial infestation of little tyrants and tin-pot megalomaniacs spread all over Africa propagating internecine bloodbaths whose purpose is, and always has been, not only to unearth and annihilate all manifestations of dissent, but to divide and plunder.
Even as Kwame Nkrumah in the Gold Coast, Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, Mrs Funmilayo Ransome Kuti in Nigeria and many others all over the continent dared to stare the…