Tracing Chinua Achebe’s Background – His Earliest Life and Schooling in Nigeria

Nigerian novelist,Chinua Achebe,, best known for his first novel, Things Fall Apart which is the most widely-read and discussed book in modern African literature, described his writing as an attempt to set the historical record straight by showing that African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans, that their societies were not mindless but had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, that they had poetry and above all, they had dignity.

Achebe’s novels especially so Things Fall Apart which is now 50 years old focus on the traditions of Igbo society, the effect of Christian and Western influences on it, and the clash of values during and after the colonial era.Achebe’s works portray Nigeria’s communities passing through the traumas of colonization and moving into a troubled nationhood. In bringing together the political and the literary, he neither romanticizes the culture of the indigenous nor apologizes for the colonial.

Achebe who unlike his Kenyan counterpart, Ngugi Wathiongo, wrote his novels in English, has defended the use of English, though it is the language of colonisers, in African literature. Achebe’s keen ear for spoken language have made him one of the most highly esteemed African writers writing in English. His style relies heavily on the Igbo oral tradition, and combines straightforward narration with representations of folk stories, proverbs, and oratory.

Raised by christian parents in the Igbo village of Ogidi in southern Nigeria, Achebe excelled at school and won a scholarship for undergraduate studies. He then became fascinated with world religions and traditional African cultures, and began writing stories which were published in on campus publications.

After graduating, he worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service which caused him to move to the metropolis of Lagos.

Achebe’s parents, Isaiah Okafo Achebe and Janet Anaenechi Iloegbunam, were converts to the Protestant Church Mission Society (CMS) in Nigeria. The elder Achebe being a teacher in a missionary school, stopped practising the religion of his ancestors, but he respected its traditions and sometimes incorporated elements of its rituals into his Christian practice.

Chinua’s unabbreviated name, Chinualumogu “May God fight on my behalf”, was a prayer for divine protection and stability. The Achebe family had five other surviving children, named in a similar fusion of traditional and English names: Frank Okwuofu, John Chukwuemeka Ifeanyichukwu, Zinobia Uzoma, Augustine Nduka, and Grace Nwanneka.

Chinua was born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe in the Igbo village of Ogidi in Nneobi, on November 16, 1930. His parents instilled in him many of the values of their traditional Igbo culture even though they were devout evangelical Protestants. They then christened him Albert, after Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria.. His parents standing at a crossroads of traditional culture and Christian influence made a significant impact on the children, especially Chinualumogu. As a result Achebe’s upbringing spanned both worlds, the indigenous as well as the colonial.

After the youngest daughter was born, the family moved to Itheir ancestral village of Ogidi, in what is now Anambra. state.

Storytelling was one of the mainstays of the Igbo tradition and an integral part of the community. Chinua’s mother and sister Zinobia Uzoma therefore told him many stories as a child, which he repeatedly requested more of. His education was expanded further by the collages his father hung on the walls of their home, as well as almanacs and numerous books – including a prose adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and an Igbo version of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Chinua also eagerly anticipated traditional village events, like the frequent masquerade ceremonies, which he recreated later in his novels and stories.

In 1936 Achebe entered St Philips’ Central School. Despite his protests, he spent a week in the religious class for young children, but was quickly moved to a higher class when the school’s chaplain took note of his intelligence. He was said to have had the best handwriting in class, and the best reading skills. He also attended Sunday school every week and the special evangelical services held monthly, often carrying his father’s bag along with him. A controversy erupted at one such session, when apostates from the new church challenged the catechist about the tenets of Christianity. . Achebe was later to include a similar scene in Things Fall Apart.

At the age of twelve, Achebe moved away from his family to the village of Nekede, four kilometres from Owerri where he enrolled as a student at the Central School, where his older brother John taught. In Nekede, Achebe gained an appreciation for Mbari, a traditional art form which seeks to invoke the gods’ protection through symbolic sacrifices in the form of sculptures and collages. When the time came to change to secondary school, in 1944, Achebe sat entrance examinations for both the prestigious Dennis Memorial Grammar School in Onitsha and the even more prestigious Government College in Umuahia. He was accepted at both but he eventually opted for Government College in Umuahia.. He received a coveted scholarship to Government College in Umuahia, where he studied alongside some of Nigeria’s future political and cultural leaders.

Modelled on the British public school, and funded by the colonial administration, Government College had been established in 1929 to educate Nigeria’s future elite. It maintained rigorous academic standards and was vigorously egalitarian, accepting boys purely on the basis of ability. The language spoken atf the school was wholely English, not only to develop proficiency but also to provide a common tongue for pupils from different Nigerian language groups. This Achebe later described as being ordered to “put away their different mother tongues and communicate in the language of their colonisers”. The rule was strictly enforced and Achebe recalls that his first punishment was for asking another boy to pass the soap in Igbo.

There, Achebe was double-promoted in his first year, He thus completed the first two years’ studies in one, spending only four years in secondary school, instead of the standard five. Achebe being unsuited to the school’s sports regimen attached himself instead to a group of six exceedingly studious pupils. whose study habits were so intense that the headmaster banned the reading of textbooks from five to six o’clock in the afternoon (though other activities and other books were allowed).

Achebe started exploring the school’s “wonderful library” and discovered Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, the autobiography of an American former slave. Though Achebe found it sad, but it showed him another dimension of reality.. He also read classic novels, such as Gulliver’s Travels , David Copperfield , and Treasure Island together with tales of colonial derring-do such as H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain and John Buchan’s Prester John . Achebe later recalled that, as a reader, he “took sides with the white characters against the savages” and even developed a dislike for Africans. “The white man was good and reasonable and intelligent and courageous. The savages arrayed against him were sinister and stupid or, at the most, cunning. I hated their guts.”

In 1948, in preparation for independence, Nigeria’s first university now the University of Ibadan opened as an associate college of the University of London. Achebe obtained such high marks in the entrance examination that he was admitted on a Scholarship in the university’s first intake to study medicine. After a year of gruelling work, however, he decided science was not for him and he changed to English, history, and theology. Because he switched his field, however, he lost his scholarship and had to pay his fees. He received a government bursary, and his family also donated money – his older brother Augustine even gave up money for a trip home from his job as a civil servant so Chinua could continue his studies. From its inception, the university had a strong English faculty and it includes many famous writers amongst its alumni. These include Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, novelist Elechi Amadi, poet and playwright John Pepper Clark, poet Christopher Okigbo and playwright and academic, Kole Omotoso.