If what has been reported in various places online, and comments from close family members and colleagues are anything to go by, Africa’s foremost novelist and author of the famous Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe, has passed on, at 82.
The author whose magnum opus, a novel detailing a class of the Igbo traditional culture with an invading European one, has been translated into 50 languages, selling about 8 million copies to become “the most widely read book in modern African literature” (Wikipedia), was a distinguished professor at Brown University. His famous intervention in the debate on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a stuff of legends and has spawned essays after essay about the portrayal of Africa, the rise of African literature and outlook, and the need of more than just a single story. He was often called “The Father of African Literature.”
Achebe’s latest book, There Was a Country, describes in his characteristic lucid prose a flattering ideal country in Nigeria and Biafra before and during the Nigerian Civil War of the 60s. Its characteristically blunt references to political players in Nigeria from the different sides of the warring divide made the book an instant classic and one that generated conversations and re-opened old wounds about the civil war and the pogroms that came with it.
I read his children’s book Chike and the River as a young boy in Ibadan, and a number of scenes in it have remained with me since. His famous work is, of course, Things Fall Apart, which is beyond the scope of my words to describe. Reading the killing of Ikemefuna was one of the most traumatizing experiences of my childhood. The image remained for very many years, raising questions in my young man’s mind about the real cost of becoming an adult.
I never met him. The closest I got was the about four weeks interval that separated my leaving Brown University for Southern Illinois University in September 2009 when it was announced that the legendary author had in fact taken up a position there. I blogged about my disappointment here. His words however, and stature, work, and engagement in public life has been a shining example. If he truly is gone as being reported, it is a terrible loss, but a glorious exit for a man who held our attention and admiration for so long, kept it focused on what is important and noble, and whose example of dignity and grace is one that will be remembered for a long time to come.