Father of African Literature
TRIBUTE TO CHINUA ACHEBE, FATHER OF AFRICAN LITERATURE
In 1958, when a 28-year old Chinua Achebe penned the words “Okonkwo was known throughout the nine villages of Umuofia and even beyond,” little did he know that the book Things Fall Apart, would make him, Achebe, well known throughout the seven continents and even beyond. Soon afterwards, he became infamous during the acrimonious language debates of the 1960s and 1970s for going against the lofty ideals and intricate academic theories of those agitating for a change in the language policies of the newly independent African states. The general feeling then was that African states needed to identify and promote an African language as the official and national language, in place of the languages of the colonisers. Achebe’s stand was simple and direct: “a language used by Africans on the African continent is African.” History has since vindicated him.
At the same time, Achebe was quite categorical about correct usage. He hit out at contemporary society for what he considered a poor reading culture, explaining that those who do not read widely would be poor at expressing themselves in writing in any language. And master of his art he was. Without recourse to mother tongue, he succeeded in rendering the thought patterns and turns of speech of the African languages of his characters into English. In the process, he bequeathed to the Queen’s language a wealth of colourful expressions and refreshing metaphors. Little wonder he became known as the father of African literature.
One such metaphor, with reference to the political quagmire in which African states found themselves after the long awaited departure of the coloniser, equated politics with rain. As Kenyans mourn this great African writer following the recent general election, this is a strategic moment for us to ponder and solve once and for all, Achebe’s riddle of where, when and how “the rain started beating us.”
©Esther Mbithi, March 2013.