Chinua Achebe was my hero. | Tribute

chinua achebe

Chinua Achebe was my hero.

As a second generation Nigerian immigrant growing up in England, role models who I could genuinely identify with were few and far between – especially in the 1980s, when it was still a big deal to see a black face on TV. So much so that we’d receive phone calls from family and friends whenever there was a Nigerian representative on the news, a film or more notably, Family Fortunes.

I think I was 10. The world was smaller and the answers to the big questions were much bigger. I remember asking my mother why God was white and I was black. Instead of answering my question directly, she [as she often did] asked me why I thought so. I hadn’t a clue, so she asked me about what I had learned in school about religious history, about black religious history to be specific. My blank expression was enough for her to reach up onto the mantelpiece and pass me a book.

I looked at the title: Things Fall Apart. Did the customary flick through for illustrations and saw nothing. Mum noticed my lack of interest and promised me to stick with it and it would be worth it. I sat down and devoured the entire thing in one weekend.

chinua achebe things fall apart book coverThanks to my Mum, I now had a hero. His name was Okonkwo and he was a leader who fell from grace due to a tragic accident. He was the main character in Achebe’s first novel and magnum opus, Things Fall Apart. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The accurate descriptions of the feelings expressed was what first hooked me in. Then it was the fact the people in it had names like my family and friends. I felt like I knew these people and the pain they experienced were so eloquently articulated, that it almost became tangible.

As I grew, I realised the real hero of the story was the storyteller. Achebe penned other novels in his time and attained international fame as Africa’s greatest writer. He was a professor, a critic and a thorn in the side of an oppressive regime imposed on Nigeria during its independence and the subsequent clamour for power in the slip stream of Britain’s absence after leaving the nation to its own devices. He was polarising and truculent in his methods, but never disregarded.

Achebe wasn’t alone in his mission. As editor of the Africa Writers Series, published by Heinemann Educational Books, he was the conduit for the careers of several African writers. Their books were released domestically and internationally and stood up against the general consensus of British based indebtedness thrust upon the young nation. It was the fledgling beginning of an entire tradition of cultural independence, with much of its momentum coming from social and political protest.

His take on the true nature of colonialism was diametrically opposed to the stance adopted by the new civilian and military governments. He was a freedom fighter in the mould of Fela Kuti, but far more loquacious in his methods of expression. He was lucky enough to live to an age where he could see the seeds of his labour come to fruition.

His work is a big part of why I write and, I am sure, why a lot of young Africans first picked up a pen to make their voices heard. I first read Things Fall Apart some 32 years after the initial publication and the resonance hadn’t diminished in all that time. I urge anyone reading this to sample some of Achebe’s work at their earliest convenience. His entire catalogue is available online going for a song.

It is said that we should never meet our heroes for fear of their diminished lustre, but I wish I had met Chinua.

I wish I could have told him how much his speaking his soul had affected me for the last two decades. I wish I could have told him how he helped me identify with Nigeria more than the subsequent and numerous visits have. I wish I could tell him how much his book meant to me and how my Mother cried down the phone to me when she heard the news of his death. I wish I could tell him how I wish I was his grandson and could have heard his tales whilst sitting at his feet, cross-legged, drinking a Supermalt. I will never get that chance.

Chinua Achebe died on March 21, 2013 at 82.

He has left a legacy for all aspiring writers to follow, not just young Africans. His bravery partnered with his peerless intellect will live on in those willing to take a stand against what they feel is wrong in their world. His legacy has immortalised him as the Father of African Literature. In a world where there are far too many with far less accomplishments to warrant the title thrust upon them, he was a hero. He was my hero.