Chinua Achebe: Some reflections

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Photo: Craig Ruttle/Associated Press

The world lost one of its literary giants today. Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe has died at the age 82.

For Nigerians, Achebe was a national treasure. He was the first African writer to attract international acclaim, and an outspoken leader with far-reaching influence on both politics and culture. Emeka Okafor, who produced the TEDGlobal conference in Tanzania 5 years ago and is Achebe’s relative, says, “He was in many ways the conscience of Nigeria. Unflinching in his critiques, a monumental figure.”

For me, Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart (1958) was my first real glimpse at Africa beyond the negative headlines (famine, disease, war) and the nature documentaries. His story was a stark portrayal of the devastating impact of colonization on traditional African societies, told through the lens of a single individual. It changed the way I think, helping me see the much bigger picture behind the headlines from Africa (and elsewhere), and understand the true impact of colonization on the continent.

The young Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie captures this notion beautifully in her TED Talk, given almost exactly 50 years later. As she says, to understand Africa today, you have to begin the story earlier.

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A particularly moving line in this talk: “Because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye … I realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature.”