It was out of a “sense of deprivation” that Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart. That’s what the renowned Nigerian novelist and “inventor of African literature,” told a captivated crowd in Princeton, N.J. who gathered recently to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the seminal novel.
Five decades after its release, it is a fitting time to revisit the novel and all it symbolized. Consider the backdrop against which it was published. We are talking about a time in the late 1950s when writing in English about Africa was exclusively a non-African exercise. Praised works included Joyce Arthur Cary’s 1939 novel, Mister Johnson, about Nigerian colonization, or Heart of Darkness, published in 1902 by Polish novelist Joseph Conrad, on adventures in the Congo.
In the midst of this literary whitewash, it was Achebe who had the daring to ask, “why don’t we have our own books…why is my story not seen?”
In the prelude to Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960, and that of many other African countries, Achebe decided to tell his own story and refute long-held distortions of African culture, history, language, values and practices. On June 7, 1958, Things Fall Apart was published. It is the world’s most widely read African novel, having sold more than 8 million copies. It has been translated into over 50 languages.
Things Fall Apart is a brilliant work about the tragic consequences of British colonialism and the influence Christianity had on Ibo culture and community. The story is narrated through the life journey of the protagonist, Okonkwo, a “strong man” of an Ibo village in Nigeria who struggles with the old and new cultures. According to Achebe, Okonkwo is “a flawed hero…who did not listen properly to his culture.” This tragic flaw was, in many ways, simply a reflection of Okonkwo’s society struggling with imposition, accommodation and acceptance.
While Achebe readily discussed the historical context of his groundbreaking work during his appearance in Princeton, he also spoke pointedly about modern politics, the failure of African leadership and the squandering of hope and opportunity following liberation in the 1960s. Calling the current state of Nigeria a “great disappointment,” he said the “real failure is a failure of leadership.” He added, “being old is not enough reason for knowledge.”
For a country so well endowed, Achebe questioned conditions for so many Nigerians who should benefit from the wealth of indigenous resources. When asked about the source of this failure in leadership not only in Nigeria, but elsewhere on the continent, he replied: “I would not waste my time answering the question why [we have this failure]. Given the catastrophic consequences, attention should be on addressing it wherever we are.”
Indeed, reflecting on the root of the problem steals time away from the immediacy of poor leadership’s devastating consequences. The economic and political chaos in Zimbabwe, the recent political crisis in Kenya, the inhumanity of the Darfur tragedy, the Iraq war and its devastating aftermath, the political turmoil in Pakistan, the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan beg for a new generation of leadership to deal with moral and institutional decay.
I am personally indebted to Chinua Achebe’s pioneering spirit and graceful courage to write Things Fall Apart. I am on an incessant pursuit for the authentic voice, for those special people who shed light on the silences. In the context of African literature, Achebe took the pen away from writers who had only objectified Africans, scribbled exoticism of their culture, and erased their humanity with the tops of their pencils. He did not just write a book. Achebe gave voice to the silences and omissions.