Chinua Achebe described himself as having “two types of music" in his soul — the legends of his people and the language of Charles Dickens. These strands of "music" shaped his life and put his beloved Nigeria, her people, history and struggles with colonialism into the world spotlight.
Achebe was born in 1930 and raised in Igbo land in southeastern Nigeria, along with five siblings. The family environment was diverse, open-minded and highly respected and loved within the community. Achebe remembered growing up in a time when things were very different in Nigeria – there was innocence, hope, progress and valuable resources.
His father, Isaiah Okafo Achebe, was born in the late 1800s when Igbo land was going through an interesting religious change. After the death of his parents, Isaiah was raised by his maternal uncle, Udoh, who was a generous man. It was due to his openness that he was the first in their community to receive English Christian missionaries as they were expanding their preaching into Igbo land. He did however ask the missionaries to move their singing away from the communal living area as he felt it was too gloomy and depressing, but he did not discourage the young people from interacting with the outsiders. And it was these encounters that were to change Isaiah’s life. As a young adult he converted to Christianity and coupled with a good education was given a post in the Anglican Mission. He was described as an exceptional man of few words, disciplined, trustworthy and was given the name of "onye nkuzi", the teacher. He valued education and enjoyed reading, especially the Bible. Achebe’s mother, Janet Anaenechi Iloegbunam, received only primary education from the missionary. This was much more than most other women of the time had received. She developed into a strong, silent, deep thinker, and became an admired leader in the church.
As a married couple the Achebes travelled across the region to teach and preach. They were of the first to marry traditional African values with European religion. They too were admired for their sincerity, acceptance and a deep love of learning in a time of clashing cultures in one of the most populous African countries. There were around 250 ethnic groups and distinct languages, making their task all the more challenging. Their children all fondly remember the many hours spent listening to stories told by Janet and other members of the family. The strong oral tradition of storytelling helped to keep so much of their culture alive and it was this tradition that put Achebe on his own path of storytelling. He often told of growing up amongst very eloquent elders who helped develop his love of language further.
By the time the Nigerian civil war, or the Biafran War, broke out in 1967, Achebe was already a famous novelist. The savage events of this war were to shaped his life and of course his writing. He had a young family to protect and as so many of his people were suffering and starving, he took the side of the Biafran people and became a cultural ambassador for his government. After the war he took up an academic post in the United States, where he remained until his death on the 21st March 2013.
Although it took him 40 years to write about the events of the war, he did refer to them in his very expressive poetry. It took courage for him to start speaking about his life, the history and beliefs of his people and the impact the Biafran war had on, not only Nigeria, but the continent of Africa. Many African writers of the last century had their works banned in their own countries, but Achebe’s works were hailed as giving readers a “dignified sense of African culture” (Kenyan writer Simon Gikandi) and were allowed in schools and libraries across the continent. His writing journey was seen as a struggle to "find himself" and to find expression for his people, interestingly in the language of the oppressive colonial power. He felt it was important to tell the story of Nigeria for his children, his grandchildren and future generations. His moral voice made him a leader of a generation and even Nelson Mandela said he was the writer "in whose company the prison walls fell down".
Although he spent most of his adult life in the United States, he continued to support democracy in his home country of Nigeria saying “mediocrity destroys the very fabric of a country as surely as a war”. Many believe Achebe should have won the Nobel Prize, but he was recognised in 2007 when he received the lifetime achievement award in the form of the Man Booker International Prize.
Inspirational, gifted and timeless, Chinua Achebe, will be remembered as a statesman, an academic and a passionate Nigerian, but most importantly, as the father of African literature.