Nigeria in mourning for Chinua Achebe

Internationally celebrated Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, pictured at his home in Warwick, Rhode Island.

From Nobel laureates to roadside booksellers, Nigerians expressed their grief and shock at the death at 82 of Chinua Achebe, the literary giant whose works made him a household name and national hero. Many who had worked alongside him wept as they paid tribute, and bookstores in downtown Lagos said his books sold out as news of his death trickled in.

Despite his age and distance from his homeland– he died in Boston, where he had lived for years – Achebe's frequent and often barbed pronouncements against an oil-fed Nigerian elite kept him very much in the national psyche. He further endeared himself to a younger generation of Nigerians weary of corruption, when he twice turned down a national honour in 2004 and 2011.

African literature burst onto the world stage with Achebe's 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, which portrays an Igbo yam farmer's fatal struggle to come to terms with British colonialism in the late 19th century. It remains the best-selling novel ever written by an African author, having sold more than 10-million copies in 50 different languages. Nelson Mandela, who read his books during his 27-year incarceration, once said of him: "He was the writer in whose company the prison walls came down."

Wole Soyinka, a fellow giant of African literature, who was informed by the Achebe family in a dawn phone call, said, "We have lost a brother, a colleague, a trailblazer and a doughty fighter."

Writing for the Guardian's Comment is free section, Soyinka said: "No matter the reality, after the initial shock, and a sense of abandonment, we confidently assert that Chinua lives. His works provide their enduring testimony to the domination of the human spirit over the forces of repression, bigotry, and retrogression."

Speaking from the town of Ogidi where Achebe was born in 1930, village head, Amechi Ekume, said: "There is deep mourning all over the village, both young and old are mourning."

"As we say in Igboland, when an extraordinary person dies, the iroko [African teak] has fallen," said a weeping Dora Akunyili, a former minister who worked with Achebe during his tenure at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

Achebe's earlier works focused on the social upheavals wrought by British colonialism. "He was the first of our African writers to tell the story from our own perspective. But even beyond Africa, people who were colonised or oppressed could relate to his stories," said Denja Abdullahi, the vice president of the Association of Nigerian Authors, which was founded by Achebe and other writers in 1981.

Wheelchair-bound since a car accident in 1990, the octogenarian had made time to speak with hundreds of fans during a gruelling national tour to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Things Fall Apart. Abdullahi said, "He was always so welcoming to everybody we met, anytime. He was very humane, very reflective. Even when he wasn't speaking, he just had so much presence."

Speaking of Achebe's impact, Abdullahi said: "He's the father of African literature and children always try to imitate the good qualities of their fathers."

The celebrated Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, last year said she wept when she received a note from Achebe praising her best-selling novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. She was too awed to pluck up the nerve to call him back. Meeting him for the second time, she was again too shy to approach as writers including Toni Morrison and Ha Jin crowded around him backstage during an awards luncheon. "Before I went on stage, he told me, 'Jisie ike [more grease to your elbow]'. I wondered if he fully grasped, if indeed it was possible to, how much his work meant to so many."

Novelists from a younger generation described the freedom to write in their own voices, which Achebe's own writing opened up, and the daunting task of trying to live up to his works.

"In the last five decades, just about every post-colonial African author, one way or another, has been engaged in a creative call-and-response with Chinua Achebe," said author Lola Shoneyin. "You are never weaned off his fiction because it renews itself. It gives you something new every time. He was just that kind of storyteller."

Another novelist, Chika Unigwe, recalled reading Things Fall Apart as a young child: "I like to imagine it was on a Sunday afternoon, right after lunch, lying on my bed. I [clearly] recall … the wonder of reading the world he creates in the book so beautifully. Its power did not hit me until years later when I re-read it as a much older reader. I am immensely grateful to him."

His children's books on African folklore remain popular with Nigerian parents. "I just literally handed The Flute and also The Drum to my daughter two weeks ago. She was glued to them, reading and re-reading them. I was too," said Ifeamaka Umeike of her 7-year-old. "I feel like my granddad died."

Released last year, Achebe's final book, There Was A Country, was a deeply personal account of his experience during the 1967-1970 Biafran civil war.

"Even a lot of [white] people buy it," said Success, hawking books amid the choking Lagos traffic yesterday. "We don't have anymore to sell but people are still asking. That means he is a man of the people."



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