, Nigeria, May 23 – Hundreds of mourners gathered on Thursday in the hometown of Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe for the funeral of the man regarded as the father of modern African literature and the author of the widely praised “Things Fall Apart.”
Heavy security was in place throughout the small southeastern town of Ogidi, with President Goodluck Jonathan along with foreign dignitaries attending the service at the local Anglican church.
Pallbearers dressed in dark suits and purple ties carried Achebe’s wooden coffin up the church aisle and placed it atop a pedestal covered in white cloth at the start of the service.
A number of women mourners wore purple headwraps and white dresses, while some men dressed in traditional shirts adorned with Achebe’s picture.
Access inside the church was granted only by invitation, but several thousand people flocked to tents with loudspeakers set up outside.
“I left my house in Asaba (a nearby city) at 5:00 am this morning in order to pay my last respects for this illustrious son of Nigeria who has done his people proud,” said Sylvanus John, a 31-year-old engineer.
Groups of admirers could be seen dancing and singing in the Igbo language spoken throughout the region in the streets of the town in praise of the writer.
Achebe, who died in the United States in March aged 82, is viewed as an iconic figure in Nigeria and abroad, and his death led to tributes worldwide.
Ogidi, located in Nigeria’s Anambra state, was decorated with posters of Achebe, while police were stationed throughout the town. A wake was held inside the family compound on Wednesday evening as crowds gathered in the streets.
His private burial on the family compound will follow the church service.
“The death of my uncle is indeed a great loss not only to the family but to Nigeria and Africa as a whole,” 64-year-old Obi Achebe said on Wednesday.
“He has left big shoes that will be difficult to be worn by anybody.”
Achebe had lived and worked as a professor in the United States in recent years, most recently at Brown University in Rhode Island. A 1990 car accident left him in a wheelchair and limited his travel.
Tributes poured in ahead of the burial. On Wednesday, Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper dedicated an entire page to a poem written for Achebe by Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer and Nobel literature laureate.
Some 2,000 people packed a stadium in the Anambra state capital Awka on Wednesday where Achebe’s coffin was put on display.
While he was known worldwide mostly for “Things Fall Apart,” a novel about the collision of British colonialism and his native Igbo culture in southeastern Nigeria, Achebe also wrote non-fiction that tackled his country’s problems.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation and largest oil producer, but remains severely underdeveloped, held back by corruption and mismanagement.
His work earned him praise from some of the world’s most respected leaders, including Nelson Mandela, who described him as a writer “in whose company the prison walls fell down”.
South African writer and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer called Achebe the “father of modern African literature” in 2007, when she was among the judges to award him the Man Booker International prize for fiction.
As well as criticising misrule in Nigeria, Achebe also strongly backed his native Biafra, which declared independence from Nigeria in 1967, sparking a civil war that killed around one million people and only ended in 1970.
The conflict was the subject of a long-awaited memoir he published last year, titled “There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra.”
“Things Fall Apart” — his first novel — was published in 1958. The novel, which traced an Igbo tribesman’s fatal brush with British colonialists, has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 50 languages.
The London Guardian wrote in 2007 that the novel “turned the west’s perception of Africa on its head — a perception that until then had been based solely on the views of white colonialists …”
It has become required reading at many universities in various countries, and Achebe is credited with profoundly influencing a generation of Nigerian writers who followed him.