23 Mar 2013

Grandfather of African literature dies

9:39 am on 23 March 2013

Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, widely seen as the grandfather of modern African literature, has died at the age of 82.

From the publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, over 50 years ago, Achebe shaped an understanding of Africa from an African perspective more than any other author.

As a novelist, poet, broadcaster and lecturer, he was a yardstick against which generations of African writers have been judged. For children across Africa his books have for decades been an eye-opening introduction to the power of literature, Reuters reports.

Describing Achebe as a "colossus of African writing", South African President Jacob Zuma expressed sadness at his death.

Nelson Mandela, who read Achebe's work in jail, has called him a writer "in whose company the prison walls fell down."

Achebe's Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, told of his Igbo ethnic group's fatal brush with British colonisers in the 1800s - the first time the story of European colonialism had been told from an African viewpoint to an international audience.

The book was translated into 50 languages and has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.

Archebe later turned his sights on the devastation wrought to Nigeria and Africa by military coups and entrenched dictatorship. Anthills of the Savannah, published in 1987, is set after a coup in a fictional African country, where power has corrupted and state brutality silenced all but the most courageous.

Vivid portrayal of African realities

Born at Ogidi in southeast Nigeria on 16 November 1930, Chinua Achebe was the son of a Christian evangelist.

He went to mission schools and to University College, Ibadan, and taught briefly before joining the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, where he was director of external broadcasting from 1961 to 1966.

When his homeland broke away from Nigeria in a disastrous bid for independence, Achebe launched a publishing company in Enugu, capital of the self-declared republic of Biafra.

After the war, which cost a million lives along with Biafra's hopes of statehood, Achebe returned to Enugu to teach at the nearby Nsukka University.

In 1972 he moved to Massachusetts and since then spent much of his time in the United States, with occasional spells in Nigeria. His last post was at Brown University in Rhode Island.

Although Achebe never won the Nobel literature prize, his works won praise for their vivid portrayal of African realities and their accessibility. His contribution was recognised when he won The Man Booker International Prize in 2007.

A car accident put Achebe in a wheelchair in 1990 and he wrote no books for more than 20 years.

His last, There Was a Country, was a deeply personal account, in prose and poetry, of the horrors of the 1967-70 Biafra war, lifting decades of silence on the loss of friends, family and countrymen that forever shaped his life.