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Nigerian Writer Chinua Achebe

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Liz Waid and Ryan Geertsma look at writer Chinua Achebe. He wrote to show Africa as it really is.

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Welcome to Spotlight.  I’m Liz Waid.

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And I’m Ryan Geertsma. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

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“Art is, and always was, at the service of man. Our ancestors created their myths and told their stories for a human purpose. Any good story, any good novel, should have a message. It should have a purpose.”

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Voice 1

These words are from Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. As a young man Achebe grew up in Igbo Nigerian culture. He saw the beauty and deep tradition of African people. But, when he looked at popular culture he saw something different. Some films and books from around the world showed African people as foolish or stupid. Achebe believed this was very wrong. He believed it was bad for African people. And in fact, it was bad for the world. Today’s Spotlight is on Chinua Achebe.

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Many people consider Chinua Achebe to be the ‘father of modern African literature.’ That is, he began a very important movement. He affected all of Africa with the novels, or books, he wrote.

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Achebe was born in Nigeria in 1930. His full name was Albert Chinualumogu Achebe. His parents named him in honor of Prince Albert, in England. Achebe’s father was a teacher in a missionary school. And his parents were strong Christians. But they also taught him many values of the surrounding traditional Igbo culture.

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Achebe was a skilled student. At university he studied English, history, and theology, or faith. He also studied broadcasting. At university, Achebe also rejected his given British name, Albert. Instead he took his middle name – an African name – Chinua. After university Achebe travelled in Africa and America. He also worked in radio and was a teacher.

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But in 1958 Achebe made a permanent mark on the world. He wrote a book called “Things Fall Apart.” Today this book appears in more than 50 languages. It has sold more than 11 million copies. This book began a new kind of writing about Africa.

Things Fall Apart book
Things Fall Apart
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“Things Fall Apart” is the story of a very successful African man. His name is Okonkwo. In the story, Okonkwo is a leader in his village. But after a terrible accident, he must leave his village. “Things Fall Apart” tells about Okonkwo’s life. It tells Okonkwo’s religious beliefs and his traditions. It tells about his children, and the way the people in his village live.

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This seems like a very normal story. And it is a very normal story. That is why it is so important. The characters in the book are very real.  Achebe showed the world what African people really felt, and said, and how they acted. This was a very new way to write stories about any African people.

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Achebe writes stories about Africa for a particular reason. For a long time, Achebe was interested in language. He listened to the people around him in Nigeria. They loved language. He heard them speak with “great eloquence.” They spoke beautifully. But Achebe did not see the same sort of eloquence and beauty from African people in modern literature of the time.

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A popular writer of the time was Joseph Conrad. One of his most famous books is called “Heart of Darkness.” He wrote it in 1902. The story tells of a European man and his travels in parts of Africa. In those days many Europeans called Africa ‘the dark continent.’ Many believed that African people were not intelligent. They looked at them like animals. They believed the ceremonies and traditions of the Africans were foolish, and even evil. Some people believed that Joseph Conrad’s book showed Africans in this way.

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Achebe tells about the longest group of words said by an African character in ‘Heart of Darkness.’ The character says only eight words. And he is not very eloquent. The African man says: “Catch him! Give him to us! … Eat him.” The African man who says this is a cannibal. He is looking for someone to eat. In other parts of the novel this man does not even speak. He shouts in high tones like an angry bird and makes animal noises.

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Achebe saw this short speech as an insult to the people of Africa. So, he wanted to do something different. In an interview with Lorene Cary at the Free Library of Philadelphia, Achebe tells why he wanted to write a book about his people. He says:

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The people I was writing about wanted their story told. They people of my village wanted their story told. I wanted my story told. I was very young, but I had begun to read other people’s stories. And I was beginning to wonder: where was mine?”

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Achebe believed that no one had told the real story of the real people of Africa. Africans in literature did not seem human. These stories lacked the beautiful language Achebe heard around him. And he felt that taking away this language took worth away from Africans. He told Lorene Cary,

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“When I am talking about my story, giving me back my story, I mean giving Africans back the story in which we are human. No matter how damaged or bad we are as humans. We cannot give language to some people and take it away from others. … That is what “Things Fall Apart” is about. What I say must be true. I cannot act as if the Africans I am writing about are angels – that they are perfect. They are not. I have to say that they are human… I lived in the village and I knew the people of the village. They were not people without language.”

Chinua Achebe speaking in 2008
Chinua Achebe speaking in 2008; Stuart C. Shapiro, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Voice 1

Achebe’s books test old ways of thinking about African people. He believes that language and literature greatly influence people. In the past, bad representations of Africa and Africans influenced people all around the world. These bad representations even influenced Africans themselves. They started to believe they were not as modern or as good as white European cultures. But Achebe writes books to show the African cultures as they really are. He educates foreign readers. And he encourages African readers. He helps his people understand how valuable their culture is.

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Through the years, Achebe has written many novels, essays, and poems. And he has received many literature awards. His writings have influenced and inspired people all over the world. 

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You can read “Things Fall Apart” in English. You may also be able to find the book in your own language. Are there writers in your culture who show your culture well? Tell us about them. Write to us at radio@radioenglish.net.

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The writer and producer of this program was Liz Waid. The voices you heard were from the United States. You can hear this program again on the internet at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called “Nigerian Writer Chinua Achebe.”

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We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye!

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