Achebe, Chinua (Albert Chinualumogu Achebe)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Achebe, Chinua (Albert Chinualumogu Achebe)

Achebe, Chinua (Albert Chinualumogu Achebe) (1930- ) Nigerian ethnographer and novelist

In his peasant fiction, the writer and freedom fighter Albert Chinualumogu “Chinua” Achebe captures the wrenching shift in outlook between traditional and modern West African values. Born to Protestant parents in Ogidi, Nigeria, 30 years before his country obtained independence from the British Empire, Achebe learned word games and STORYTELLING from his mother Janet and sister Zinobia. He later exalted CREATION LORE and beast FABLES about tortoise, the trickster, as “the very center, the very heart of our civilization and culture” for the way they interwove the foundations of stability and change with admonitions of danger and endurance (Achebe and Lindfors 1997, 80).

When Christian missionaries first arrived in Ogidi, Achebe's great-grandfather tossed them out of his compound because their hymns were too depressing. Years later, at a turning point in Nigerian history, Achebe observed in his family a fusion of beliefs among proselytized natives of the Niger delta. His uncle maintained reverence for Igbo animism while receiving instruction from Western missionaries and, as Achebe wrote in his AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Home and Exile (2000), “considered it safe to install his heathen shrine of Ikenga (village) and other household divinities in the piazza” (Achebe 2000, 9). The duality of beliefs confused the author, who received lumps on the head from a primary schoolteacher who punished any mention of Igbo ritual. According to Achebe, “You can't fool around with children—you have to be honest with language: cleverness won't do” (83).

Achebe realized that his people had a natural talent for right thinking, but that colonialism and its material boost to villagers promoted exhibitionism, pride, and envy. In The Trouble with Nigeria (1998), he stated his fear that his country would turn into “one huge, helpless electoral dupe” (52). At age 24, he wrote and performed radio programs for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation while also working as a freelancer, providing short sketches for the University Herald and The Bug. Settled in Lagos, he established his career as a writer of short fiction, children's books, and African folklore that tend toward motifs of culture clash as it impacts the Igbo village.

In defense of ancestral forms of organization, Achebe honored the village assembly, which tolerated no monarch and linked all people with spirits, the dead, and future generations into a single social system based on equality. In 1972, he taught university courses and toured campuses in Great Britain and the United States to refute misconceptions about Nigerian people, such as their inability to value the individual, to govern by popular assembly, or to appreciate traditional lore as WISDOM LITERATURE. He charged the literature of earlier years with exonerating white Europeans for barbaric practices during the slave era, including concubinage and the marketing of children.

2 Achebe, Chinua

The targets of his spite were two esteemed novels: Anglo-Polish writer JOSEPH CONRAD’S HEART OF DARKNESS (1902) and Irish author Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson (1939), both of which depict Nigerians as incapable of fending for themselves. In “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ’Heart of Darkness’” (1975), a Chancellor’s Lecture delivered on February 18, 1975, at the University of Massachusetts, Achebe accused Conrad of racism, for depriving black characters of language, expression, and humanity.

Paganism v. Christianity

When it was published in 1958, Achebe’s classic pro-African tragedy Things Fall Apart reset standards of European thought about Africans. The narrative depicts the dilemma of Okonkwo, a superstitious tribal bully who falls victim to Western rationalism. During the reign of Queen Victoria, the intrusion of British imperialists and missionaries in the tribal affairs of Umuofia, Nigeria, destroys a society dating to 4000 B.c. One method of reshaping thought and worship is the renaming of converts with Hebrew first names. Okonkwo’s son Nwoye undermines paternal control by shucking off paganism and taking the name Isaac, son of Abraham, a monotheistic patriarch. The Hebrew name means “laughter” but holds no mirth for Achebe or his antihero. Okonkwo survives exile and redeems himself through industry and planning rather than propitiation of gods, but he returns to an old order subverted by new beliefs.

In their pristine state, the Igbo value agriculture and revere conversation. The wise stress that “Proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” (Achebe 2005, 10). Through metaphor, the village sage Obierika summarizes the trickery of Mr. Brown, the white missionary: “We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay… . He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart” (162). Angered by his powerlessness against evangelists and colonizers, Okonkwo, the conservative villager, lashes out at change and expresses outrage by beheading a court messenger. His suicide portrays not only despair but also a violation of natural order. In the final sentence, Achebe creates irony out of a paragraph in The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, a book by the arrogant district commissioner. A faceless bureaucrat who devalues Africans, he dismisses the downfall of the people under his control as insignificant.

Tradition v. Oppression

Suspicion fell on Achebe during the political instability that preceded the military coups of 1966 and the creation of the short-lived Republic of Biafra on May 30, 1967. Undaunted by warlords’ menace, he delved further into issues of tradition and coercion in the victim story “Civil Peace” (1971), told in dialect, and the novels No Longer at Ease (1960); Arrow of God (1964); and A Man of the People (1966), a postcolonial SATIRE on guile and political fraud. In the latter work, Achebe highlights the citizens’ criticism of the murderous Chief Koko, which comes too late: “Overnight everyone began to shake their heads at the excesses of the last regime, at its graft, oppression and corrupt government: newspapers, the radio, the hitherto silent intellectuals and civil servants—everybody said what a terrible lot” (1988, 149). The pause for consensus illustrates Achebe’s strongest charge against Nigerians: that they lack spunk and leadership.

Amid threats to his life, including the firebomb - ing of his house and library in September 1968, Achebe turned to verse to capture the tensions of struggle. Collected in Beware, Soul Brother (1971), the poems honor the courage of families and their losses due to a brutal military junta. For the sake of future Nigerians, in the title poem, he urges, “Pray / protect this patrimony to which / you must return when the song is finished” (1997, 569).

In 1988, Achebe wrote Anthills of the Savannah, a postcolonial allegory of the military coups that paralyzed Nigeria. At a high point in the author’s survey of changes in the imperial order, he celebrated Britain’s loss of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1980. In place of fears of the mother country, he raised new specters, “that fat, adolescent and delinquent millionaire, America” and puppet despots like Idi Amin of Uganda (1988, 52). Because of Achebe’s demands for courage and truth, admirers named him the father of modern African fiction. In 2008 on the 50th anniversary of Things Fall Apart, scholars worldwide celebrated the novel for its revelations on imperialism.


Achebe, Chinua. Anthills of the Savannah. New York: Heinemann, 1988.

----- . “Beware, Soul Brother.” In Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry, edited by Robert Atwan, George Dardess, and Peggy Rosenthal, p. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

----- . Home and Exile. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

----- . “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's ’Heart of Darkness.'” In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, et al., New York: Norton, 2001.

------- . A Man of the People. New York: Anchor, 1988. . Things Fall Apart. New York: Macmillan, 2005. . The Trouble with Nigeria. New York: Heinemann, 1998.

----- , and Bernth Lindfors. Conversations with Chinua Achebe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997.