|Late Professor Chinua Achebe|
"Age was respected among his people, but achievement
was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with
kings." - Things Fall Apart, pg 5.
It is not a surprise
the amount of tributes that have poured in from around the world following the
passing on of perhaps Nigeria's greatest ever writer. Chinualumogu Albert
Achebe died a few hours ago aged 82. Why was Chinua Achebe so readable and Wole
Soyinka is almost inscrutable? The former was a writer, a storyteller; the
latter is a poet who just happens to write.
Chinua's telling of
stories and his command of the English language, was such that the moment you
picked up a Chinua Achebe book, putting it down became almost an impossibility.
His understanding of the culture of his Igbo people, my people, was also
virtually unrivalled. A lot of the Igbo proverbs I learned first, I learned
from his magnum opus, Things Fall Apart. However, when talking of a giant of
literature such as Chinua Achebe, it is plain wrong to use the phrase magnum
opus to describe his work. His craftsmanship as a story teller was such that he
had a plethora of work that made up his magna opera.
As compared to a lot
of people, Achebe was a man of character, who refused not one, but two national
honours because he was not at peace with the way Nigeria is being run. Only if
our government(s) had been reading.
No Longer At Ease, his second novel, and in many ways more
poignant than Things Fall Apart itself, is a book that peers deep into the
Nigerian psyche and foretells in more ways than one, the emergence and eventual
proliferation of Nigeria's current national malaise, corruption.
"It is all lack of experience," said another man.
"He should not have accepted the money himself. What others do is tell you
to go and hand it to their houseboy. Obi tried to do what everyone does without
finding out how it as done." He told the proverb of the house rat who went
swimming with his friend the lizard and died from cold, for while the lizard's
scales kept him dry the rat's hairy body remained wet.
In that passage,
describing the reaction of the Umuofia Progressive Union after Obi Okonkwo had
been caught for bribery, Achebe tells us about our own complicity in this
culture of corruption that is destroying our country. The truth was that the
members of the Umuofia Progressive Union were not concerned about the fact that
Obi accepted bribes. Rather, their grouse was that he accepted bribes without
covering up his tracks. This, up until today, half a century after those words
were set in stone, is the root of our disease today.
The seer that he was,
peered into our psyche even in such a "mundane" thing as our stamina
as a people. In Arrow of God, Ezeulu, given the power to make decisions on
behalf of the god Ulu, Ezeulu would not dare test that power. But his people,
were quick to abandon him on his return from prison, because of the "small
issue" of being unable to harvest their yams. The conversion of the people
of Umuaro to Christianity because Ezeulu did not perform the New Yam Festival,
foretold our inability to weather storms as a people, together. A failing
talked about by another Nigerian great, Fela Kuti, in his Sorrows, Tears and
But Chinua Achebe was
not just a writer about culture, tradition and the contemporary. One of the
first books I recall reading, was Chike and the River. Being ethnically from
that region, but hailing from another part of the country, I began to, at that
young age, appreciate the vital importance of the River Niger to commerce in
Chinua, as he grew
older, and especially after Nigeria's devastating Civil War, became more
introspective, and tried to, in his own literary manner, warn us about the road
we were taken. A warning that as a people, we have failed to heed.
In yet another
seminal piece, The Trouble With Nigeria, Chinua said, "In spite of
conventional opinion Nigeria has been less than fortunate in its leadership. A
basic element of this misfortune is the seminal absence of intellectual rigour
in the political thought of our founding fathers - a tendency to pious
materialistic woolliness and self-centred pedestrianism."
There you have it. He
was probably the first to identify something that a few Nigerians are beginning
to come to terms with, that our founding fathers were not all that. Such was
his genuine insight into the character of this country that he called home.
In his last book,
There Was A Country, came for the first time since I started reading him, long
passages that I disagreed with. However, one cannot fault what he wrote because
he clearly stated from the beginning, that the book was a personal history.
That personal history, was perhaps his greatest gift to Nigeria. Mistakes were
made in those dark years between 1966 and 1970. Those mistakes are finally
being documented by some of the people who went through those days. We MUST
learn from it.
Regarding the man, it
is simply impossible for an iroko tree to fall and the forest will remain
quiet. The tributes and obituaries that have poured in from various parts of
the world should be a pointer to the younger generation of Nigerians. Chinua
Achebe was by no means a wealthy man. He was not a pauper either. But by using
his God-given talents, he achieved global recognition. Now that the curtains
have been drawn on his life, we can all sit back and see how the world treats a
genuine icon. He lived to a grand old age. He was also an achiever. And the
world has now shown, it is not only among ndi Igbo that achievement is revered.
In publishing Things Fall Apart at age 28, Chinua washed his hands early. And
Kings invited him to the table, such that he had the luxury of choosing what
banquets to attend, and which to reject.
Iroko ada na! Dike eji aga mba na gbo. Prof, kachifo.