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Chinua Achebe: Celebrating the legacy of a literary icon

Why does storytelling mean so much to Africans? asks Linus Unah

Long before written texts became popular and commonplace, Africans had a huge appetite for stories passed on in the oral tradition. These stories could take any form, such as folktales, myths, fables, epic histories, proverbs or sayings, and legends.

Around villages and towns, it was common for children and young people to gather by moonlight around a fire to listen to tales told by adults. As a core component of society, oral storytelling was the basic tool deployed by grandparents, parents and relatives to transmit a deep knowledge of culture, history, tradition and social mores. These forms of traditional storytelling did not only provide entertainment but also taught morals and were used to inform, educate, persuade and instill social values.

But were they enough to get Africa onto a global stage? How would communities use the same tool of passing on their heritage and culture to shatter stereotypes?

Enter Chinua Achebe, a literary icon whose birthday the world celebrated on 16 November, despite his death in 2013. Achebe is often discussed in the same breath as his first novel, Things Fall Apart, which was published in 1958 and continues to be seen as his best work.

Read: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart named in BBC’s 100 stories that shaped the world

If anything, Achebe’s novel helped people to realise that storytelling continued to matter and when it touched on issues of concern to society, as much of Achebe’s work does, then it held even greater relevance for everybody – not only for people who cared about literature. Such was Achebe’s influence on many people that quotes, paragraphs and proverbs from the novel were frequently used to buttress arguments or illustrate a point.

Things Fall Apart rippled across the globe like a heat wave. Sales grew exponentially from a few thousand hardcover copies produced in 1958 to well over 20 million copies sold worldwide. More and more countries took an interest in the book and the novel was translated into nearly 60 languages. This brought the novel a far greater readership than any other book in African literature. 

What Achebe did was to bring the African storytelling experience to a more diverse, global audience, using a literary form that was popular in Western culture – the novel. His deep understanding of the value of customs and traditions, as well as other essentials of a traditional Africa society, including kinship, proverbs, folklore, festivals, music and dance, made his work stand out.

He successfully showed that most of these traditions, which may have been characterised as being archaic or even barbaric by the uninformed, were not all that dissimilar from Western mores, particularly when it came to maintaining justice and order in society.

Read: Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Chimamanda’s Americanah named among 100 Books to feature in ‘The Great American Read’

The global recognition of Achebe’s canon, which grew to include more than 20 books, has energised a new breed of African writers who are out to promote African storytelling in every imaginable literary form.

African writer
Chinua Achebe had his book Things Fall Apart published in 1958. It is one of the most widely read book from the continent. Photo: Facebook/Chinua Achebe

This crop of writers – people like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila, Okey Ndibe and Sefi Atta – have written globally acclaimed novels and amassed international awards for their work. Achebe emboldened writers to tell their stories, enriched with local experience and perspective, without fearing that it would prevent them from breaking into the global market.

And it appears to be working.

Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, Habila’s Measuring Time, Ndibe’s Arrow of Rains and Atta’s Everything Good Will Come exemplify the extent to which African writers are willing to draw on events happening around them, couch them in forms that have a global appeal and get these locally driven narratives onto the global stage. This is what Achebe did with his first novel, so it is not surprising that it is gradually becoming a trend.

TAGS: Literature, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, storytelling,

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