Ahead of the Africa Writes festival 2013 (5-7 July) PEN Atlas hears from African writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o on his friend and mentor Chinua Achebe. Ngũgĩ will appear in conversation with his son Mukoma wa Ngũgĩ on Saturday 6 July at the British Library.

A version of this article was originally published in The Nation in March 2013.

I first met Chinua Achebe in 1961 at Makerere, Kampala. His novel, Things Fall Apart, had come out, two years before. I was then a second year student, the author of just one story, Mugumo published in Penpoint, the literary magazine of the English Department. At my request, he looked at the story, and made some encouraging remarks. What I did not tell him was that I was in the middle of my first novel for a writing competition organized by the East African literature bureau, what would later be published as The River Between. 

chinua-achebeMy next encounter was more dramatic, on my part, at least, and would impact my life and literary career, profoundly. It was at the now famous 1962 conference of writers of English expression. Chinua Achebe was among a long line of other literary luminaries, that included Wole Soyinka, J P Clark, the late Eski’a Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi and Bloke Modisane. The East African contingent consisted of Grace Ogot, Jonathan Kariara, John Nagenda and I. My invitation was on the strength of my short stories published in Penpoint and in Transition. The novel most discussed in the Conference as a model of literary restraint and excellence was Things Fall Apart.

But what most attracted me was not my being invited there as ‘writer’ but the fact that I would be able to show Achebe, the manuscript of my second novel, what would later, become Weep Not Child. It was very generous of him to agree to look at it because, as I would learn later, he was working on his  novel, Arrow of God. Because of that and his involvement in the conference, he could not read the whole manuscript, but he read enough to give some useful suggestions.

 More important, he talked about the manuscript to his publishers, William Heinemann, represented at the conference by June Milne, who expressed an interest in the work. Weep not Child would later be published by William Heinemann and the paper back by Heinemann education publishers, the fourth in the now famous, African Writers series, of which Achebe was the Editorial Adviser.

I was working with the Nation newspapers when Weep not child came out. It was April 1964, and Kenya was proud to have  its first modern novel in English by a Kenyan African. Or so I thought, for the novel was well published in the Kenyan newspapers, the Sunday Nation even carrying my interview by de Villiers, one of its senior feature writers. I assumed that every educated Kenyan would have heard about the novel. I was woken to reality when I entered a club, the most frequented by the new African elite at the time,  who all greeted me as their Kenyan author of Things Fall Apart.

Years later at Achebe’s 70th
birth day celebrations at Bard College attended Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka among others, I told this story of how Achebe’s name had haunted my life. When Soyinka’s turn to speak came, he said that I had taken the story from his mouth: He had been similarly mistaken for Chinua Achebe.

 The fact is Achebe became synonymous with the Heinemann African writers series and African writing as a whole. There’s hardily any African writer of my generation who has not been mistaken for Chinua Achebe.

I have had a few of such encounters. The last was in 2010 at Jomo Kenyatta Airport. Mukoma, the author of Nairobi Heat, and I had been invited  for the Kwani festival whose theme was inter-generational dialogue. Mukoma, my fourth son and I fitted the bill perfectly. As he and I walked towards the immigration, a man came towards me. His hands were literally trembling as he identified himself as a professor of Literature from Zambia.

“Excuse me Mr Achebe, somebody pointed you out to me. I have long wanted to meet you.”

“No, I am not the one,” I said, or words to that effect, “but here is Mr Achebe,” I added pointing at my son.

I thought Mukoma’s obvious youth would tell him that I was being facetious. But no, our Professor grabbed Mukoma’s hands, before Mukoma could protest, grateful that he had at last shaken hands with his hero. The case of mistaken identity as late as 2010 shows how Achebe had become a mythical figure, and rightly so.

He was the single most important figure in the development of modern African literature as writer, editor, and quite simply a human being.

As the general editor of the Heinemann African Writers Series, he had a hand in the emergence of many other writers and their publication. This meant sheer investment in time, energy, commitment and belief. He never bragged about it, even refusing the unofficial title of ‘father of African literature’. As a human being, he embodied wisdom, that comes from a commitment to the middle way between extremes, and, of course, courage in the face of personal tragedy!

Achebe bestrides generations and geographies.  Every country in the continent claims him as their author. Some sayings in his novels are quoted frequently as proverbs that contain a universal wisdom. His passing marks the beginning of the end of an epoch. But his spirit lives on to continue inspiring yet more African writers and scholars of African literature the world over. 

About the Author

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a Kenyan author, dramatist, essayist, translator, academic and political commentator. Born in 1938 his first novel Weep Not Child was published in 1964, followed by The River Between (1965) and A Grain of Wheat in 1967. After performances of his play I Will Marry When I Want – highly critical of Kenya’s ruling political regime – he was imprisoned for a year. Whilst incarcerated, Ngũgĩ wrote Devil on the Cross, a coruscating critique of the poverty, corruption and greed that he believed had infected Kenyan society. His short memoir, Detained, describes the time he spent in prison. After his release, Ngũgĩ returned to his teaching role at Nairobi University where he produced his highly influential pamphlet Decolonising the Mind – an argument that African authors should write in their own languages. This is something that Ngũgĩ himself continues to do – writing in his mother tongue, Gikuyu, before translating into English. After a twenty year gap between novels, in 2006 Ngũgĩ published the sprawling satire Wizard of the Crow – a comedic masterpiece and magical realist interpretation of the post-colonial state. He is currently Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s memoir Dreams in a Time of War received a Writers in Translation award in 2010. 

Additional information

Africa Writes 2013 takes place between Friday 5 July and Sunday 7 July at the British Library.  Africa Writes will hold a tribute event for Chinua Achebe on Saturday 6 July at 3.30pm. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o will appear in conversation with his son Mukoma wa Ngũgĩ on Saturday 6 July at 6.30pm

Please visit the Africa Writes website for more information about the festival and to see the full programme of events.