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Does Africa have a history? Of course it does! But before Chinua Achebe, few outside the "dark continent" believed that it did.
Achebe ignited a revolution and brought his people to the world...
In 1974, an older white man asked Chinua Achebe what he studied. Achebe answered, "African Literature." The white man thought that was funny. He had never thought of Africa as having literature, or a history.
Chinua Achebe spent his whole life proving that man wrong. Africa had a long history, and numerous stories to tell.
Chinualumogu Achebe, better known as Chinua, was born in the Igbo town on Ogidi on November 16, 1930, in what was then the British Colony of Nigeria. The Igbo had inhabited villages around the Niger River for thousands of years. In 1901, the British conquered the Igbo people, burning much of their land in the name of “pacification.” The Igbo survived as best as they could. But when missionaries converted most of the locals into Christians, schools taught only English, and the Igbo were made to follow the British system of law, their culture was all but decimated.
While Achebe's parents were Christians, they respected Igbo tradition and raised their children with the folk stories of their people. As a boy, Chinua participated in village festivals, where masked elders delivered prophetic dreams and kept alive the oral traditions of their people.
Chinua was a brilliant child. He did well in school though forced to speak only in English. Once, he was punished when he asked a fellow student to "pass the soap" in Igbo.
Chinua adapted, and in 1948 was one of the first students offered a place at the newly opened University College, the first university in Nigeria. He soon decided he wanted to be a writer.
Of course, there was nothing African in the curriculum.
There was plenty of Shakespeare and Coleridge. But Chinua found no books with African characters in them, except for a novel called Mister Johnson that was set in Nigeria and in which all the black characters were buffoons or savages, mocking stereotypes of the “dark” continent of Africa. Chinua was horrified: decades of colonialism and white condescension had led white people to believe that Africans were bush pygmies and primitives.
Chinua decided to make it his life's ambition to show them what Africans were really like.
In 1958, Chinua Achebe published his first novel, entitled Things Fall Apart. It told the story of an Igbo family living in a village in Nigeria in the early twentieth century. Except for a few missionaries, there were no white characters in the story. Chinua’s book showcased what Igbo life, culture, and society was like beyond the gaze of white colonizers. As Chinua letter described it, the purpose of his book was “‘re-storying’ peoples who had been knocked silent” by colonialism.
Things Fall Apart sparked a revolution. Hundreds of young Africans began to write books recording their history and culture. Soon, many were calling Chinua “the father of modern African writing.” In the late 1960s, the first universities began to teach courses in “African Literature” and “African History.” Many white people continued to think of Africa as a place without culture, but Africans were now ready to fight back with stories. Their own.
Chinua Achebe lived until 2013. He wrote four more novels as well as many essays and short stories. Later in life, he encouraged people of color around the world to “stay where they are” in their writing; that is, to tell stories from their own perspectives. That way, there would be a "balance of stories among the world's peoples" that would enrich everyone’s lives.
"People from different parts of the world can respond to the same story, if it says something to them about their own history and their own experience."
- Chinua Achebe
Chinua believed that recovering African stories would enrich the lives of all people. He held that we are all parts of the same big story, which we can only truly comprehend if everyone is allowed to speak their part.
Chinua Achebe wrote African and specifically Nigerian people into literature, revolutionizing how we think about storytelling. That's why he's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Please leave us a comment if he's among YOUR #HistoryHeroes.