Thursday, 4 April 2013


Chinua Achebe speaking at SOAS London in 2008 to commemorate 50 years of publication of Things Fall Apart. Pic by F Macha...

Overseas based Africans do all sorts of jobs. What they qualified at institutions of higher education is often thrown out of the window for mundane jobs to support families and a life that is as tough as this March’s freezing weather, rain and snow plus shocking news of death. Anglo-European news broadcasts were mum, but stations that beam African news (Al Jazeera, French TV 5, Africa Channel etc) did mourn the famous, esteemed Nigerian writer’s demise, last Thursday.  
I was chatting to a Tanzanian musician who once worked at a five star London hotel. 
“The place received interesting visitors; one night boooom! In strolled two prominent African writers. They were attending a big conference. Later we sat for a long time talking.  I said to myself, Woow! I am sitting with celebrities.”
One was the 1986 Nobel Prize For Literature winner, Wole Soyinka; first African to scoop the coveted award since French writer Sully Prudhomme netted it in 1901.
“I could not believe I was chatting to Soyinka and fellow Nigerian legend, Chinua Achebe. Achebe said he gets ideas to write out of the blue, gifted by God.  Because I had told him I am a musician -and this is a side job I do to pay bills- he said the way I compose songs is the same way a writer works.”

Chinualumogu Okafo Achebe opened doors of international recognition for African writers. Before him were Amos Tutuola- another Nigerian, famous for “Palm-Wine Drinkard” inspired by Yoruba folk tales in 1952 and Swahili poet, Shaaban Robert, whose humanistic approach in 1940s and 1950s novels  is sometimes credited for motivating ideas of Ujamaa championed by Mwalimu Nyerere.
Years ago, I read a true story narrated by Achebe.  He once met the late Shaaban Robert (who died in 1962, aged 53) but could not discuss much because the Tanzanian’s works were all in Kiswahili. Chinua’s implication is a significant detail. Both were brilliant writers; one a seasoned, promoter of Kiswahili literature in East Africa; the other younger and recently published his debut novel, Things Fall Apart.  However, because Shaaban was not writing in English (or French) he was un-acknowledged. This is ironically, still the case; successful and prolific as he was, Ustaadh Robert is not that well recognised compared to Chinua Achebe.

 Achebe was catapulted to stardom with the novel: Things Fall Apart, in 1958. Heinemann’s African Writers Series here in London appointed him editorial advisor in 1963.
 “The first 30 titles they selected were to shape the development of African literature,” writes James Currey on the history of AWS (Africa Writes Back, Oxford 2008), which was crucial for literacy in African schools.  The Royal African Society in London said in 2003 that Heinemann helped provide a global market for African writers like Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Somali’s Nuruddin Farah, Ghana’s Ayi Kwei Armah and South African Ezekiel Mphahlele.
Achebe was a great story teller whose talent was not just by pen and paper. I confirmed this when I met him in 2008 at the 50 years celebration of the publication of Things Fall Apart.  Kadija Sessay of Sable Lit magazine and promoter of literature invited us to perform music and poetry to celebrate at London’s School of Oriental African Studies (SOAS) event because we had been influenced by Things Fall Apart.
As the Professor spoke, I shut my eyes uncertain whether it was him or Nelson Mandela – they have similar ways of talking- slow, tender, witty and extremely funny. He was in a wheelchair, partially disabled, having suffered a car accident in Nigeria in 1990. It was hard to get through him, everyone yearned for a word, an autograph, a smile; I wanted an interview; his agent was very protective; but, we managed to hear his tales.
 Recalling how he wrote Things Fall Apart (translated into 45 languages including Kiswahili) the West African said he mostly listened to his people, “especially women” who were a great source of social, historical information. Things Fall Part captures few years preceding arrival of colonialists in Nigeria.

 The title is from a poem, The Second Coming, by Irish writer, William Yeats (pictured taken by George Charles Beresford in 1911:
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
When we were studying the book I was in form three at Ilboru Secondary School, Arusha in 1971. Our teacher, Mrs Victoria Chitepo was exiled wife of Zimbabwe’s Herbert Chitepo, ZANU president who would be assassinated  by racists in 1975 and be replaced by Robert Mugabe.

 Mama Chitepo (above in the middle, in recent times in Zimbabwe) made us understand how Achebe used metaphors, proverbs, characters, sentences and cultural references from his Igbo tribe and the way the continent would subsequently, be broken. 
In studying Achebe’s books (e.g. No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God and A Man of the People) we really improved our English and literacy skills. This proves the importance of having superb, thinking authors. Thanks to that I am writing this piece today.

Also published in Citizen Tanzania

No comments:

Post a Comment