Remembrance of Things Fall Apart

John Otim


John Otim, poet, novelist, critic, Editor of Nile Journal




The British academic who in 1948, in the sprawling city of Ibadan, pioneered Nigeria’s first institution of higher learning wanted a college that would be the equal of any in the world. Nothing but the best is good enough for Africa (his words). It was a tall order. But against all odds, within a few years, within limits, and to a good measure, Kenneth Mellanby delivered.

If proof were needed the early graduates to come out of the College, is the proof. Achebe who was a pioneer student and who graduated in 1953 with a degree in English was one of them. So were the writer and critic John Pepper Clark and the Literature Nobel winner Wole Soyinka. As was also the much acclaimed poet Christopher Okigbo, whose early demise in 1967 in Nigeria’s bloody civil war robbed Africa of a young and rising star!

For those who like comparison we could turn to Oxford, that most historic campus, and take from there the class of the same period, the period that produced the writer VS Naipaul. Chronologically Naipaul was two years younger than Achebe. But if you made the comparison you can see that within the period except for Naipaul there were no lights coming out of Oxford that were as luminous as those coming out of Ibadan, at least in the broad field of the arts and culture.

By far the brightest jewel of Mellanby’s stunning success at Ibadan, was the publication in 1958 of Things Fall Apart; the work that earned for its author the controversial title of father of the African novel, a title which Achebe in his modesty and in his pride loved to disown.

If we were to take Achebe seriously on this count, and we must, we will have little choice but to believe that though Achebe wrote the novel, Achebe is not in fact the author of Things Fall Apart. A logical impossibility! In several interviews over the years Achebe affirmed that Things Fall Apart practically wrote itself. He had little to do with it. Something was in the air. Africa needed a voice. There was an African story round the corner, waiting to be told.  Someone was bound to come along who would tell the story. Achebe says all these as a matter of fact.

There are critics who object or who detest the idea that Achebe is the father of the African novel or for that matter the father of anything. They point out that Achebe was not the first African to write, nor was Things Fall Apart the first novel written by an African. The critics are right on both counts! 

But this line of criticism misses the point. No other work and no other writer, has told the story of the imperial encounter in quite the way Achebe tells it in Things Fall Apart. Discerning critics have observed that Achebe took the language of Shakespeare, Dickens  and Jane Austen, and turned it upside down.  

By the deft use of centuries old wisdom embedded in African proverbs and folklore Achebe created a new language, English in words and syntax, but African in spirit and semantics. In this new language Achebe told the story of  the colonial encounter. It was a story that no other writer had told before. It fitted exactly as no other story had done before, the outlines and the experience of every colonial encounter on the continent. In this sense Achebe had invented the African novel.

Of those magical days when Things Fall Apart was written, Achebe says simply, something was in the air. What a statement! But in this simple statement we begin to approach some understanding of  of how Things Fall Apart came to be written. After the traumatic experience of the slave trade and of direct colonial occupation that saw outsiders trample with impunity, over sacred rites and traditions, Africa was awakening to its true self and asserting its rights to run its own show. That was what was in the air. A wise British Statesman called it the wind of change.

*Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven

Achebe was a beneficiary of the something in the air. And  he was also a contributor to the something in the air. But for Achebe to have benefited as richly as he did from the something in the air. And for him to have returned in full measure his own contributions, Achebe needed to leave his own village and to travel to far away Ibadan, to the University College that Kenneth Mellanby and his team of young academics were putting together. In later years Achebe would say of Ibadan. If the British ever did anything good in Nigeria, it was the University College.