Every work of fiction is prefaced with the claim, “Any similarity to any real persons or situations is purely coincidental.” But don’t you believe it. Every piece of writing, particularly if it aspires to greatness, contains but a thin veneer over the real. The difference is that here the writer is God and decides the fate of the characters they “create,” and so the tale stands as warning or inspiration or sometimes both.
Every aspiring writer is told, “Write about what you know.” The late Chinua Achebe knew and experienced quite a lot. He was born and raised in Nigeria, a promising intellectual who came of age in the period of independence. Though raised in missionary schools, his family was firmly rooted in the African oral and spiritual tradition. When the ruinous conflicts of the immediate post independence period broke like a storm over Nigeria, most populous nation in Africa, Achebe was in the thick of things as a reporter, poet, diplomat and citizen.
The very top scholars in the schools the British established in their colonies were sent off to study in London. Upon their return they were immediately installed in high posts in the colony’s administration. As the colony moved toward freedom, these native officials assumed the running of the newly independent country. Trained in the West, though, they were men of two worlds. The conflicts within their psyches morphed into conflicts on the ground in the nations they desperately tried to lead.
For example, in Anthills of the Savannah, three boyhood friends eventually emerge as leaders in their country. One becomes the military dictator, another the head of the Ministry of Information and one the publisher of the national newspaper. The publisher is a fiery critic and spokesperson for the common people who naturally comes into conflict with the military ruler. The Minister of Information desperately tries to run interference between his two old friends, one symbolizing the European and the other the African worldview. Things reach a disastrous boiling point as the dictator badly mishandles a peaceful protest from a distant province. Note, Achebe was the architect of Radio Nigeria in the early ‘60s, but he soon came into conflict with the military ruler. Ultimately, Nigeria fell into a bitter civil war as one region, Biafra, attempted to secede.
His most famous novel, Things Fall Apart, centers on a traditional village and its colonial school. It is based on the experiences of the Achebe family. It portrays the conflicts spawned by colonialism, at the local level, whereas Anthills of the Savannah examines these contradictions on a national scale. Published in 1958, Things Fall Apart was the first novel written by an African published in England. Achebe continued to write as Nigeria plunged into Civil War, emerged, and continues to struggle right up until today.
Chinua Achebe joined the ancestors on March 22, 2013. But his novels and stories and poems will live forever. Won’t you step into one of the worlds that he created? Experience the Nigeria of yesteryear firsthand, and behold the lessons they hold for all of us today! ( by Dr. Arthur Lewin, author of Africa Is Not A Country: It’s A Continent, www.AfricaUnlimited.com www.ReadLikeYourLifeDependsOnIt )