The scale of Chinua Achebe`s greatness



If ever there was a writer in Africa whose life, work and achievements reverberated the most throughout the world, that man was Chinua Achebe.

Born on November 16, 1930, Achebe began his journey to greatness in 1936 when he attended St. Philip`s Central School to receive his primary education. From 1944 to 1947, he attended Government College Umuahia. Thereafter, precisely in 1948, Achebe entered University College, Ibadan, which was an offspring of the University of London. He was just 18 years old. While studying English, history and theology there, the young Achebe, no longer the innocent reader of Treasure Island, Tom Brown`s School Days, The Prisoner of  Zenda and David Copperfield at Government College Umuahia, became critical of racial stereotypes in European literature about Africa including Joyce Cary`s Mister Johnson. Thus, he decided that it was time Africans told their own stories. The results of this decision were the production of several short stories by him, among which is the classic, “Marriage is a Private Affair” while he was still a student! But a miraculous feat which would change the complexion of literature from Africa and the entire world as well as reclaim the dignity of the African that was lost in European literature was still on the way, very soon to be performed by young Achebe, who was, from 1951 to 1952, editor of the campus magazine, University Herald.

After graduation from the University with a degree in 1953, Achebe taught for a short spell as a secondary school teacher in his village in 1954 while in search of a substantial job. The humility of doing this as a ‘graduate’ in those days is noteworthy. In fact, while the super-intelligence of Chinua Achebe is never in doubt here, I like to think that that virtue may have played a part in getting him a job at Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in Lagos where he rose rapidly to the position of director of external broadcasting. However, he did not stop writing. In fact, at this time he was hard at work on his first novel. Then, in 1958, at just the age of 28, Chinua Achebe performed the miracle of publishing Things Fall Apart, a missionary work that restored full humanity to Africans.

Despite the warm reception of the book, the initial fame it brought him mixed with his joy of serving humanity, Chinua Achebe knew that he had also to serve humanity by way of raising a family. Thus, in 1961, he married Christie Okoli (now Professor of Psychology) whom he met while he was the controller of Nigerian Broadcasting Service, Eastern Region, in Enugu. Today, the late Ogbuefi of African literature has four successful children: Chinelo, Ikechukwu, Chidi and Nwando. Chinelo, who is the first child and daughter, is a Professor. She teaches as well as writes in New York State. Ikechukwu is visiting Scholar and Director, Igbo Archival Dictionary. He holds a Phd in History from the University of Cambridge in the U.K. He was also Associate Professor of History and Director of the Igbo Language Project at Bard College. Chidi, the legend’s third child, is a physician in the United States. He has built a splendid Laboratory in Wellessley, Massachusetts, U.S.A! Achebe`s last child, Nwando, became a Professor of History at Michigan State University, U.S.A, at the age of 39!

But, of course, while he raised a family and consistently kept watch over, the evidence of which is in the enormous successes of his sons and daughters, Achebe never ceased for once to serve his society since Africa meant to him an extension of his own immediate family.

Thus, after the publication of Things Fall Apart which has sold over 12 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 50 languages of the world, making the fallen Iroko the most widely read African writer, Chinua Achebe who was until his death the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, has since produced so many other towering works. Some of them are: No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, A Man of the People, Anthills of the Savannah, Girls at War, Chike and the River and essays like ‘The Novelist as Teacher`, ‘The Truth of Fiction` ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad`s Heart of Darkness’,  ‘Work and Play in Tutuola`s The Palmwine Drinkard’, ` What  Nigeria Is to Me`, ‘Africa`s Tarnished Image`, ‘Colonialist Criticism`, ‘Africa and her Writers`, ‘The Writer and His Community`, `Kofi Awoonor as a Novelist`, ‘What Has Literature  Got to Do with It?`, ‘Politics and Politicians of Language in African Literature`, ‘Named for Victoria,Queen of  England’,‘Postscript:James Baldwin (1924-1987)`, ‘Impediments to Dialogue between North and South’, ‘Stanley Diamond’, and ‘Africa Is People`. For me, as an avid reader of Achebe, the best African writer, these works are charmingly affective, with varying successes among which are the pastoral grandeur some evoke, the compelling truth they preach and the royal stamp others bear.

Chinua Achebe was also the general editor of African Writers Series and significantly contributed to the emergence of many writers and their publications, besides founding Okike: An African Journal of New Writing plus the Association of Nigerian Authors to provide both budding and already established writers in Nigeria and elsewhere a platform for artistic expression.

            But I am not the first in appreciating the late Professor Chinua Achebe`s enrichment of mankind, for while alive so many universities in the world including Nigerian governments decorated him with honorary doctorates and other honours, some of which he turned down for worthy reasons while some of the ones he accepted are:

Honorary Doctorates

Dartmouth College, U.S.A. 1972, D.Litt

Southampton University, England, 1974, D.Litt

Stirling University, Scotland, 1975, D.Univ.

Prince Edward Island University, Canada, 1976, LL.D

The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, U.S.A.,1979, D.H.L

The University of Ife, Nigeria, 1979, D.Litt

The University of Kent, England, 1981, D.Litt

The University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nigeria, 1981, D.Litt

Mount Allison University, New Brunswick, Canada, 1984, D. Litt

University of Guelph, Canada, 1984, D.Litt

Franklin Pierce College, New Hampshire, U.S.A, 1985 D.Litt

Lagos State University, Nigeria, 1988, D.Litt.

Westfield College, Westfield, Massachusetts, U.S.A 1989, D.H.L

The Open University, Great Britian, 1989, D.Litt

University of Ibadan, Nigeria, 1989, D.Litt

Georgetown University, U.S.A, 1990. LL.D

University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, 1991, LL.D

Skidmore College, U.S.A , 1991 D.Litt

The New School for Social Research U.S.A , 1991, D.H.L

Hobart and William Smith Colleges, U.S.A, 1991, D.H.L

Marymount Manhattan College, U.S.A, 1991, D.H.L

City College, City University of New York, U.S.A 1992, D.Litt

Westfield State University, Massachusetts, 1992, D.Litt

Colgate University, U.S.A, 1993, D.H.L

Fitchburg State College, Massachusetts, U.S.A 1994 D.Litt

State University of New York, Binghamton, U.S.A, 1996, D.Litt

Bates College, Lewiston, Maine, U.S.A, 1996, D.Litt

Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A, 1997, D.Litt

Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.A, 1997, D.Litt

Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, U.S.A., 1997, D.Litt

Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio, U.S.A., 1999, D.Litt

Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, U.S.A., 1999, D.Litt

University of Witswatersrand, South Africa, 2000, D.Litt

Haverford College, Pennsylvania, 2001, D.Litt

Cape Town University, South Africa, 2002, D.Litt

Fairleigh Dickinson University, New Jersey, 2002, D.H.L

University of Massachusetts, Boston, 2006, D.Litt

University of Toronto, Canada, 2006, D.Litt

University of Sokoto, Nigeria, 2007, D.Litt

Nnamdi Azikiwe University, 2009, D.Litt

Lesley University, Massachusetts, 2010, D.Litt

Ebonyi State University, Abakilik, Nigeria D.Litt April, 2012

Other honours (select list)

            Margaret Wrong Memorial Prize, 1959

Nigeria National Trophy, 1960

Rockefeller Fellowship, 1960

Langston Hughes Medallion, 1962

UNESCO Fellowship, 1963

Jock Campbell-New Stateman Award, 1965

Commonwealth Poetry Prize, 1973

Honorary Member, Modern Language Association, 1974

Neil Gunn Fellow of the Scottish Arts Council, 1975

Lotus Award for Afro-Asian Writers, 1975

Hon. Fellow, Modern Language Association of America, 1975

Nigeria National Merit Award, 1979

Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, London, 1981

Founding President, Association of Nigerian Authors, 1981

Member, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1982

Member, Royal Society of Literature, 1983

Commonwealth Foundation Seniour Visiting Practitioner, 1983

Hon. Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1983

Commonwealth Foundation Award, 1984

Callaloo Award, 1989

CHINUA ACHEBE DAY May 25, 1989, proclaimed by the President of the Borough of Manhattan, New York City.

Member, 7-man International Jury appointed by the Indian Government to award the annual Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development, 1989-92

Member, Academy of Sciences, USSR, 1990

Major Street in University Town Nsukka renamed CHINUA ACHEBE Road In 1990

Achebe`s Sixtieth year marked with an International Symposium by the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, February 12-14 1990.

Visiting Fellow and Ashby Lecturer, Clare Hall, Cambridge University, 1993

International Nonino Prize, 1994

Order of Kilmanjaro, awarded by African Overseas Union, Houston, Texas, 1996

Champion Medal, 1996

Honorary Citizenship of The City  of Austin, Texas, 1997

World Bank Presidential Fellows Lecturer, 1997

Honorary Vice President, Royal African Society, London, 1998

CHINUA ACHEBE DAY, February 14, 1998, proclaimed by the Mayor of the City of Washington, D.C.

Mcmillan Lecturer, Harvard University, 1998

Founding Fellow, Nigeria Academy of Letters, 1999

Odenigbo Lecturer, Catholic Archdiocese of Owerri, Nigeria, 1999

National Creativity Award (NCA), Nigeria, 1999

Avenue leading to State House in Anambra State Capital, Awka, named CHINUA ACHEBE avenue in 1999.

German Peace Prize of the German Book  Trade. (Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels) 2002

Phyllis Wheatley Award, Harlem Book Fair, 2004.

Associate Member, Academy Of American Poets, 2004.

“The New African,” Selected Chinua Achebe as one of the Greatest Africans.

Major Road connecting Ogidi to Onitsha in Anambra renamed CHINUA ACHEBE Rd in 2008.

Man Booker International Prize, 2007.

The National Arts Club, Medal for Honour for Literature, 2007

Lifetime Achievement Award, The Schonberg, New York.

Inducted into the Nigerian Hall of Fame, 2010

Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, 2010

Towards the end of his life, after an amazing will to live helped by the answered prayer of his name Chinualomugo or God fight for me, which kept him going for more than 22 years since he became crippled and confined in a wheelchair from an accident in 1990, Chinua Achebe published his memoir, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra which is, as noticeable in its title, not only a personal account but also a political treatise. If there are any flaws in some aspects of the book arising from sheer misinterpretation or subjective bias or even downright arrogance in the tone of certain passages in it, there are weaknesses of one deeply haunted by war memories and an eminently patriotic Nigerian!


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