by James Eze
I have difficulties associating Chinua Achebe with death; accepting that he is no more and re-imagining him as the voice of a most illustrious ancestor whose guttural wisdom will accompany me till I draw my last breath. Since Chinua Achebe’s passage, I have had long occasional spells of uncertainty; moments when news of his death sounded like one of the many cruel jokes our politicians play on their opponents, announcing their deaths in the social media to cause them a little discomfort. And at such moments, I wonder if I shouldn’t be grateful for the devilish fabricators of those digital hoaxes. At other moments though, I chide myself for asking too much of Chinua Achebe; for wishing that a proud man like him had continued his grim wrestle with fate that had confined him to the wheelchair for twenty three long years, after he had left us a body of works to guide our slow, cautionary steps in a world where prejudices lay ambush at every turn, where the story-teller has as much power to heal as to kill and after he had left his testament in that monumental book – There was a Country.
AIthough it might sound odd, there have also been times when I saw Achebe’s wheelchair as the metaphorical throne upon which he sat in judgment over Joseph Conrad and his band of early explorers who disingenuously generated a vast arsenal of derogatory images of Africa to justify slave trade and colonialism and sundry other inhuman treatment of black people across the world.
I often shake my head ruefully at friends who do not understand why I mourn Chinua Achebe; why I have personalized his death as a cruel hand dealt on me by fate. Perhaps they will understand if they knew my story.
Growing up in the serenity of Nsukka, my childhood brimmed with fantasies of the world beyond the rolling green hills that hemmed us in. My first peek into the world beyond the hills was through Chike and The River, Chinua Achebe’s novel for boys. I read Chike and The River with all the innocent longings of childhood, imagining myself in Chike’s adventurous world, standing on the bank of River Niger and casting a languorous look across the shimmering water to the outlines of Asaba in the distance or seated before the money-doubler; waiting for my pockets to swell up with magical coins. Chike’s daydreams ignited mine and since I had no river in the immediate environment of my childhood, I longed for a trip to Onitsha and the banks of the great Niger. Although I never quite made it to the Niger of my boyhood reverie, my ceaseless longing finally took me to the figurative river of books and the brave new worlds that heaved with scented lives within their covers.
I had read a number of other novels before I read Things Fall Apart. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines had taken me through the Kraals of Southern Africa and in the iridescent eyes of fortune hunter Allan Quartermain, I had seen King Twala in his grotesque hideousness and recoiled from his fiendish savagery. I had taken sides with the liberating white angels in Captain John Good and marveled at the dark sorcery of Gagool in that long disheveled tale. I had also read Montezuma’s Daughter by the same author as well as the detective tale, Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers and then, perhaps one of the most enchanting of all, Treasure Island by the Scottish, Robert Louis Stevenson. But in Things Fall Apart, I met myself for the very first time. Looking back, it was perplexing how suddenly, I witnessed a shift in my paradigm; everything I had seen of my culture took a dazzling knew sparkle, everything suddenly made more sense. I understood in a fuller scope, my grandfather’s early morning libations and invocation of the protective spirit of our ancestors with palm wine and a lobe of kola nut. I experienced the same epiphany of the insomniac who sat on a low hill and watched the sun rise, its delicate rays poking through the milky gray skies to announce another beginning. From that moment, I knew that I had a lot of catching up to do with myself and I regret to admit that I am not quite sure I have caught up with me to this day.
Quite naturally, Things Fall Apart led me to Achebe’s subsequent works. I read Arrow of God with so much relish. I found in Ezulu a magnificent character in his glorious stubbornness. I considered Obika his son one of the finest characters in fiction with all the tragic charms of youthful foolishness and unbridled maleness. I found in the great, fire-spitting orator, Nwaka of Umuneora whose wives were secretly given to other men to father his children, the deepest ironies of being. I found the grand dialogues in Arrow of God a matchless work of genius.
If Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God handed me a cultural frame of reference to aid my understanding of myself, No Longer at Ease and A Man of the People led me through the social labyrinth of Nigeria with its underbelly of corruption and receding morality. Chief the Honorable M.A Nanga emerged from Achebe’s satirical Man of the People, a towering fictional character whose archetypal shadow continues to haunt Nigeria’s political space to date. Most of what I gleaned of the dominant strains of logic and tendencies that ruled post-colonial Nigeria came from my reading of Anthills of the Savannah. The ideological ferment that pitched military adventurers, do-good journalists and the fickle Nigerian masses in a bizarre cockfight and the whimsies of modern Nigeria and all, I learned from Anthills of the Savannah.
I came across The Trouble with Nigeria rather late – twenty years after its publication. Regardless, it instantly lent me a rare insight into the philosophical flaws that marred the formation of a truly responsible and accountable leadership in Nigeria. I learned for instance that while their contemporaries were sculpting crucial ideological foundations for emerging African countries, our founding fathers were expressing a crass wish to accumulate enormous wealth and enjoy the highest standards of living.
“An absence of objectivity and intellectual rigor at the critical moment of a nation’s formation is more than an academic matter. It inclines the fledgling state to disorderly growth and mental deficiency,” Achebe had reasoned in The Trouble with Nigeria.
I learnt from this book that as independence was dawning, Nnamdi Azikiwe had declared, “Henceforth I shall utilize my earned income to secure my enjoyment of a high standard of living and also to give a helping hand to the needy”, while Obafemi Awolowo who was widely regarded as a sage had this to say, “I was going to make myself formidable intellectually, morally invulnerable, to make all the money that is possible for a man of my brain and brawn to make in Nigeria.” I shuddered at the mercantile hollowness of these statements the first time I read them and I haven’t stopped shuddering to this day.
My discomfort deepens whenever I recall that their contemporary, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania led his people so well that in the 1960s, Nyerere as the President of Tanzania was reported to have asked his bank for more months of grace on the repayment of his mortgage loan to enable him recover from paying his children’s school fees. Picture that!
The more I read Chinua Achebe, the more knowledgeable I become, of myself, my immediate environment and the universe, ascribed to people like me. My sense of the peculiarities of my world heightened under his careful gaze. So did my wonderment about the many odds that seemed stacked so high against the small people of the world – the threat of dying tongues and mangled identities, the constant straining against the leash of inferiority, the burden of explanation and proof of our humanity.
The world as I knew it exploded when I began to read Chinua Achebe’s essays. My understanding of Mbari, the extravagant artistic heritage of the western Igbo and its deep philosophy of the beauties of ephemeral arts took its beginning from Achebe’s Regents’ lecture at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1984. The Novelist as Teacher, his 1965 essay, offered me a rare insight into the basic ideology that fired Chinua Achebe’s writing. In that essay, Achebe outlined his mission in a one liner that rings Achebesquely as usual – here then is an adequate revolution for me to espouse – to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement.
Chinua Achebe’s entire life centered on this philosophy: the ceaseless striving to bring diverse peoples of the world to the communal table of mutual respect and acknowledgment of a shared humanity. Achebe was particularly piqued that the black man, especially black Africans had been stranded at the bottom of things for too long. Of particular significance to him were the efforts of writers and adventurers like Joseph Conrad and Joyce Cary whose rare pieces of poisonous literature on Africa; sought to validate the heinous crimes of slavery, racial bigotry and colonialism. To this band of immoral writers, Achebe’s singular wish was that his novels, especially the ones set in the past would teach African readers that their past – with all its imperfections – was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.
His rebuke of Conrad in the infinitely famous 1975 lecture at the University of Massachusetts, An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is so profound that its echo continues to ricochet across the decades to eternity. In his seminal 1978 convocation lecture at the University of Ife ominously titled, The Truth of Fiction, I gleaned that art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him; an aspiration to provide himself with a second handle on existence through his imagination. More importantly perhaps, I also learned that there are fictions that help and fictions that hinder. One is beneficent fiction and the other malignant.
My journey through Chinua Achebe’s collections of essays in Home and Exile, The Education of a British-protected Child, Morning Yet on Creation Day as well as Hopes and Impediments has swept aside all shades of doubt and offered me an insight into the reason why he could never have won the Nobel Prize for literature, had he lived a hundred years longer. By my reckoning, no African writer has ever stood up to the racial malignment of the black-man as Chinualumogu Achebe did. Nor has anyone else flung a wider window open for the flowering of African artistic expressions than he did with the African Writers Series. That was why I laughed when Bello Kano, the Bayero University professor, sought to mock Achebe’s literary achievements in a terribly flawed piece he published in the wake of his passage. I thought it was understandable though; Chinua Achebe’s legacy is beyond the grasp of the simple minded, the provincial scholars who have yet to do a good job of understanding their own decaying neck of the wood.
In a 1988 tribute to James Baldwin, Chinua Achebe sought to offer useful insights to Africa’s unknown past and proffer explanations for what Baldwin had assumed was an inheritance of loss as he espoused in the famous statement; Stranger in the Village where he had ruefully contrasted his African heritage with that of a humble Swiss peasant. Baldwin had concluded that while the forebears of modern Europe were busy building empires and producing Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Da Vinci and Beethoven, his African ancestors sat idly, watching the conquerors arrive. Achebe’s response dwelt mostly on the need for black people to take possession of their story and tell it themselves. He did not think that the African humanity needed to be justified through the fabrication of lofty stories of a heroic past. Nevertheless, he pointed out that a Dutch historian who visited the ancient Benin Empire in A.D. 1600 had observed that what he saw of the city compared quite favorably with the city of Amsterdam at the time. Remarkably, this same city with all its high art and splendid civilization was whimsically condemned as the “City of Blood” by imperial British who set upon it, about two hundred and fifty years after the Dutch explorer’s chronicle and brought that great empire to its ruin.
Indeed, the life and times of Chinualumogu Achebe constitute an incredible epoch in the enlightenment of the black world which is very unlikely to re-occur on this side of eternity for a long time to come. And because Chinua Achebe lived among us, no conscious African can lean back in absolute comfort of blissful ignorance when our collective roof billows with smoke. Indeed no one who takes himself seriously will find it comforting to live with all the mis-education or utter silence on who we once were and who we can become. And when I think of Chinua Achebe and the life he led, when I contemplate the scale of his legacy, his ceaseless struggle for a kinder and richer humanity, when I find myself musing on his immortality, I am consoled in the realization that his was a life led in full. There are no missing chapters in Chinua’s life, from the paradigm-shifting Things Fall Apart to the volcanic There was a Country. I am consoled by the fact that I cannot unknow what Achebe has made me know.
Nna anyi, naa n’udo!