by Uzodinma Iweala
I met Chinua Achebe for the first time when I was in high school, but I knew him through his works long before that. “Uncle,” as my siblings and I were told to call him, came to our house in Washington, D.C., for a teatime reception my mother had organized. She had just co-written a biography of him for children, inspired in part by my lament that there were few books about the lives of famous Africans. It was hard to reconcile the taciturn, elderly, black-beret-wearing gentleman in his wheelchair beneath the bougainvillea with the unapologetic in-your-face voice of Africa I had imagined while reading his seminal work, Things Fall Apart, or the determinedly angry man I had pictured working through the arguments of his ever-relevant 1982 essays, The Trouble With Nigeria. The man who sat in our living room reminiscing with my father—who remarked to my best friend’s mother when she apologized for presenting a dog-eared copy of Things Fall Apart for him to sign, “Well I know that you have truly read the book!”—was unassuming, not substance over style, but substance as style.
It is perhaps for this reason that Achebe’s works have become the foundational texts for much of African literature and his person a role model for many Africans, writers and non-writers alike. Things Fall Apart, his first and most influential novel has sold more than 12 million copies since it was published in 1958. It is a staple in any course on the modern English-language novel, and has even inspired an eponymous hip-hop album by the The Roots. His essay on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has so profoundly shaped the way Conrad is read that the two texts are now taught alongside each other. Achebe’s refusal twice to accept Nigeria’s National Honors on the grounds that many of the problems with governance he illuminated in The Trouble With Nigeria remain unsolved, has only solidified his reputation as a man of ultimate principle. But the cultural, historical, and personal antecedents of this “Teacher of Light” have largely remained the focus of postcolonial theorists who have often rendered the world’s most accessible author inaccessible.
It seems fitting, then, that Achebe who turns 82 this November, would attempt to offer himself to us in his new memoir, There Was a Country. The book has all the elements of an author’s journey through his own life. There is the story of how his orphaned father’s conversion to Christianity set the stage for Achebe’s education and love of reading; how his own personal early experiences with both traditional religion and Christianity created internal conflicts that form the subject matter of his early novels; how he bounced from studying medicine to English, into a career at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corp., and through that into the arms of Christie Okoli, his wife for the last 56 years. But this narrative stops short, as if Achebe partially subscribes to the thinking of Toni Morrison, who famously canceled a memoir, saying, “There is a point at which your life is not interesting, at least to me.” For Achebe it appears that his life is only interesting within the context of the Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Nigeria-Biafra War) of 1967–70, which claimed up to 3 million lives, most of them from the Igbo ethnic group of which Achebe and I are both members. This war began after the mass slaughter of Igbos in northern Nigeria inspired the flamboyant Oxford-educated Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu to declare an independent state in the Igbo-dominated southeast, and inspired many to humanitarian action, even as it became a proxy battleground for corporate and Cold War interests.
Forty years on, it is impossible not to see the impact of that civil war. For many Igbos, the impact is still very personal. Both of my grandmothers can only shake their heads and repeat “It was so terrible” when asked about that time in their lives. As does Achebe in There Was a Country, my grandfather can recount numerous near brushes with death at the hands of often-ruthless Nigerian fighter and bomber pilots. My mother and father speak vividly of the initial excitement following Ojukwu’s declaration of Biafran independence followed by fear, deprivation, and eventually an absolute weariness as the conflict dragged on. For the children and grandchildren of Igbos who lived through the war, these stories of trauma have left an indelible impression that underlies a certain mistrust of Nigeria’s attempt at national unity. Equally devastating is the war’s impact on our national political system. Achebe writes that after the war, “the Igbo were not and continue not to be reintegrated into Nigeria, one of the main reasons for the country’s continued backwardness, in my estimation.” A trip to the Igbo-dominated southeast reveals abysmal roads, bridges threatening to collapse, and a power grid that is all but entirely useless, all what many Igbos believe is a deliberate policy of neglect as punishment for the sin of secession.
The country has suffered as a result of what Achebe calls the evil of tribalism.