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Oh, how we miss Achebe

Oh, how we miss Achebe
  • PublishedJune 13, 2013

Ask a million Africans, and I bet most would say Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is the best African book. When the book came out, Achebe was merely 27, and we were captivated by its writing power. Nelson Mandela would later exclaim: “There was a writer named Chinua Achebe, in whose company the prison walls fell down.”

When I travel outside Africa, mostly to Britain, say in the summer, and perhaps to my “clubs”, my friends, however delighted to see me, will start: “How goes Africa, Old Boy, all well?” No sense in telling them that there are 54 nations there, and that each is not an exact replica of the other and that therefore the question is not valid or accurate – however well-meant, or not!

But this summer, I shall positively await the query, eager to give the answer: “Oh, Africa is weeping because Chinua Achebe is dead!” And I shall tell a tale about our greatest writer, among the very few first to summon a whole continent and unite it with the power of the stories he told, and the manner in which he told them. As long as books are read, which undoubtedly they will be forever, Chinua Achebe will feature among those writers who united a continent with how they glued the past and the present together, starting all those years ago in the 1950s, and told how Africans had been, how they came under attack, and how they survived, sometimes with scarifying difficulties.

Towards the end of March, some of us were driving back from the funeral of a friend, Lady Justice Constance Byamugisha, the new Acting Deputy Chief Justice of Uganda. This was only a fortnight after that of her brother, Eriya Kategaya, erstwhile No. 2 in Uganda’s hierarchy, behind President Yoweri Museveni. On the journey (death surrounding us) news arrived that Chinua Achebe, arguably the best-known, and best-ever, African writer, had also died, aged 82. Chinua Achebe: the name rolls off the tongue, as poetry, as magic. (What’s in a name, asked Juliet. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet!” Maybe so; but who could imagine Chinua Achebe, as, say, a butcher or sandal-maker?)

His fellow Nigerian countryman, Wole Soyinka, is the better rewarded writer, having bagged the Nobel Prize for Literature, plus not far short of a million dollars, but for me, and a multitude of others, that should have gone to Achebe (profuse apologies, Wole!). Ask a million Africans, including school children who have read African literature, and I bet most would say Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is the best book ever written by an African. And that it would rank at the highest level beside those from any other continent or time.

I first met him and other mainly African writer-lions, but also some African-American ones, in 1962, at a Writers’ Conference at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, from which I had just recently graduated. Wole Soyinka was there too, and others (from memory): Zik Mphahlele, Dennis Brutus, Lewis Nkosi, Alex La Guma (all from South Africa), John Pepper Clark, Chris Okigbo (from Nigeria), Kofi Awoonor, Cameron Duodu, Efua Sutherland (from Ghana), Langston Hughes (from the US), who won my everlasting friendship (though I never saw him again) when praising the lyricism in a short story of mine, which some participants had judged of no political merit! Ah, there were many other writers there, but memory and space are my masters… What fun and joy at life that first-ever intercontinental literary conference generated! Those were the days, especially with the Francophone Africans, when Negritude, the power of praising Africanness, was all the rage, even from President Senghor of Senegal, himself a renowned poet! One day, Soyinka, bored to death with this Negritude, remonstrated: “Should the Tiger roar its Tigeritude?”

I fear the wind left the French-African sails! Soyinka had latterly held up a Nigerian radio station at pistol point as a political act. Now he bestrode the conference like the colossus he was. Dennis Brutus had been shot by racist white South African police. Dennis was never a “bestrider”: he had written a poem about the terror of his country, but ending with the wonderful line: “But somehow tenderness survives!” Myself, hardly published, in the face of these heroes, rebelliously stood up and observed: “What a problem for those of us who have not held up radio stations or been shot!” To which, very much to his credit, Brutus observed, gently: “Right. But John, I didn’t ask to be shot!” It was that kind of meeting.

You wouldn’t have thought Chinua Achebe was there. He was mostly quiet, a smile playing on his lips, taking it all in. What a gentleman! But his books could snarl if called upon! “The smaller the hood the bigger the patter,” Bogart observed of Peter Lorre in a movie, when the latter, all hooded-eyed, snarled behind him how he was going to “fill him with lead”! But our noise, too,

played its necessary part in that meeting of youthful, and not so youthful, writers, coming to terms with the words, the bricks, of their craft. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive!” Thereafter, my meetings with Chinua Achebe were perforce infrequent, and mainly where birds of the writing feather were gathered together! Once, or perhaps twice, we crossed paths on teeming London streets. He had a smile for me, of a warm but maybe quizzical nature. I then heard that he had been reduced to a wheelchair by an accident, and gone to the US semipermanently.

I wondered whether his heart for Nigeria (without Biafra) had broken. But I never forgot Achebe, much less now! Those of us alive at that hour when his first book, Things Fall Apart came out, when he was just 27, were astounded and captivated by its power. But also by how, through its Igbo protagonist, Chief Okonkwo, an older, African civilisation, was submerged by a later, European one. Thus it could be called a song of defeat, but sung in heroic tone, and fashioned elegantly into an English with Igbo undertones: technically a magical and miraculous feat. The book, it is no exaggeration to state, blew our minds. But equally those of countless others: it went into more than 50 translations, selling more than 10 million copies worldwide. Four other novels followed: No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), which some, but not I, consider his greatest achievement:

I stick with the first book (which to me seems nearer to perfection); then the satirical A Man of the People (1966), then Anthills of the Savannah (1987), his kind of summing up of his and other African writers: to me seemingly an afterthought, and finally There Was A Country. There were some children’s books too. He also brought out Beware Soul Brother (1971), an award-winning collection of poems, and Girls at War and Other Stories (1972), a volume of short stories. These last two came from his experiences of the Biafran War.

This was that calamitous civil war of an attempted secession, by Biafra from Nigeria, in which more than a million perished. Surprisingly, Achebe, the most peaceful person you could ever meet, believed firmly that only an independent Biafra, to which its people could retreat, would ensure the survival of the Igbo, of whom he was one. He said, “I believe our cause is right and just. And this is what literature should be about: right and just causes.” From this came his often-repeated statement, “Let the hawk perch and let the eagle perch”: Equality! A friend of his from earliest schooldays was the Okigbo I had enjoyed meeting, a brilliant poet who chose to fight for Biafra in this war, and died, some say shot in the back by his own side while ordering them to follow him where the fighting was fiercest! Achebe was one of the gentlest people I ever met, and nice. In fact when I, as the local boy, took out the conference visitors to nightspots, it never occurred to me to ask him along, fearing he wasn’t for our kind of fun. Awoonor, yes, I introduced him to Little Night, and we had almost to kidnap him onto his plane back to Ghana. And Duodu likewise (whom I dubbed Door-don’t) to this day!

But not Achebe! Most surprising: most Africans had accepted that our new countries, at the colonialists’ Scramble for Africa, had indeed been badly put together, with ethnic groups combined whose languages and customs were completely at odds. It has made for great complications for our new nations, and it was no doubt intentional: Divide and Rule! But how do you undo them later? It would be akin to unravelling a sweater back into a ball of wool. Chinua Achebe never agreed this for Biafra. As a kind of ambassador for the ill-fated Biafran nation, he toured the world to sell it – in vain, as it happened. Which direction do you choose? I never attempted to question this saintly man. Some matters you put off until a better opportunity arrives. Too late, now!

Even elsewhere, Achebe might seem mild, but not if he thought something was not right, including in literature. In America when giving a lecture at Massachusetts University, he denounced Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in forthright terms, finding it condescending and even racist to Africans. Many in the audience, to their shame in my view, walked out. But he was the same man who refused honours from his own Nigeria, saying the leaders there who offered them had not done enough for their citizens.

Elsewhere he accepted numerous awards, including over 30 honorary doctorates. He must have glowed particularly at the tribute from Madiba (Father of the Nation), Nelson Mandela:

“There was a writer named Chinua Achebe, in whose company the prison walls fell down.”

Written By
John Nagenda

John Nagenda writes about the dynamics of Africa's business, economy, lifestyles and politics. Candid, compassionate, critical, humorous and provocative all describe his style of writing. Nagenda is a leading columnist in East Africa as well as an honorary member of the National Institute of Journalists of Uganda. He is a Senior Media Advisor to H.E President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda. Mr Nagenda is the only indefatigable fighter / writer on behalf on the movement... - H.E Yoweri Kaguta Museveni.

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