Tuesday, October 06, 2020

DJ Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe is known the world over as a Nigerian novelist, poet, and professor. He has written over 30 books, won numerous awards and holds honorary degrees from multiple universities. So it is to be expected with all this focus on his writing that it is easily forgotten that he spent most of his career working in radio. In 1945 Achebe took a job at the Merchants of Light school in Oba; a suburb of Onitsha, Nigeria. Achebe lamented the shortage of reading material. He described the school library 

"I discovered the school "library" consisted of a dusty cupboard containing one copy of the holy bible, five pamphlets entitled The Adventures of Tarzan,  and one copy of a popular novel The Sorrows of Satan."  

 You can imagine that it probably came as a relief to him to receive a letter from Mr. Elphik, the Controller of the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS). The letter stated that his name had been forwarded to then director Tom Chalmers as a candidate by James Welch at University College, Ibadan for a job with NBS. Elphik requested an interview in Lagos. Achebe asked Elphik to meet him in Onitsha which he did.

To better understand the state of radio in Nigeria in 1945 I've referred to the seminal text Broadcasting in Africa by Sydney W. Head. Even by 1974 only 5 of the 12 Nigerian states had set up local broadcasting services, so the Nigerian Broadcasting Service aka "radio Nigeria" by default was the principal broadcasting organization in Nigeria. Broadcasting in Nigeria dates back to December of 1932 with the BBC "Empire Service."  Founded in 1933 as the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria it was operated by the British colonial government. Until 1951, they broadcast primarily BBC programs. Branded as the Radio Diffusion Service (RDS) it was reorganized into the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) on April 1st, 1957. The citizens of Nigeria owned few radios so public listening stations were set up with loudspeakers. Born in 1930 in the town of Ogidi, in Anambra State Achebe would have grown up hearing RDS.

Ultimately Achebe only taught in Oba for about four months. before he moved to Lagos for the job at NBS. They assigned Achebe to the Talks Department, preparing scripts for oral delivery. While not strictly an on-air position, it's responsibilities shaped Achebe's writing style to some degree as was effectively writing spoken dialogue for a living. He also introduced a program known as "Sunday Night Spot" which was a highly regarded lecture segment.  He was mentored by Angela Beattie, formerly of the BBC. Achebe would eventually become the head of that department. 

In 1955 Achebe began work on his first manuscript which would become two novels: Things Fall Apart. and No Longer at Ease. By March of 1956 he had almost completed the first draft. That year he and Bisi Omabanj were nominated by the NBS to attend the BBC staff school in London. Achebe was scheduled to attend a general Radio Production course for overseas broadcasters from April 3rd to May 11th. Then attachment to a BBC department from may 12th to August 31st. This was his first travel outside of Nigeria. He brought the working draft with him to London. More here.

Bisi Omabanj badgers the young Achebe to show his manuscript to a BBC school professor, Gilbert Phelps. Phelps was the producer of the Third Programme at the BBC and had already published two novels. He would go on to publish seven more by 1975 and numerous short stories. Phelps loved the novel and wanted to take it to a publisher. Achebe demurred wanting to refine the novel more. Achebe returned to Nigeria and to his job at NBS and finally hand wrote a final draft of Things fall apart in 1957. He sent it to a London typing agency to type up. They lost the manuscript. It was at this time that Ms. Beattie relinquished her post, and Achebe was promoted to head of Talks succeeding her.  While in London on her leave, Angela Beattie went to the typing agency and confronted them. Under her apparently intimidating presence, the missing manuscript was found, typed up and returned to Lagos. Phelps then ushered a copy to Heinemann Educational Books, who agreed to publish it. Things Fall Apart went on be translated into more than 50 languages and sell millions of copies.

In 1960 Achebe was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship for six months of travel. Two years later, Achebe again left Nigeria, this time as part of a Fellowship for Creative Artists awarded by UNESCO. While he was traveling the world, the Nigerian Parliament approved the creation of the Voice of Nigeria (VON) external shortwave service. Broadcasts began on January 1st, 1961. After his travels Achebe rejoined the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in 1961 as director of external broadcasting at Voice of Nigeria, a position he held until 1966.

While Achebe was a director at VON, Heinemann launched their African Writers Series of books. It would eventually include more than 270 books by a wide variety of post-colonial African authors. As their founding advisory editor to the series he had significant input in to what works were published. He remained in the role until 1972. More here. I find it strange then that their only two radio-related works were both published in 1973. Despite the timeline, I have often wondered if Achebe had any involvement in the publication of the books Nine African Plays for Radio or African Theatre: eight prize-winning plays for radio. (Though the latter appears to have been published under two slightly different titles...) 

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