By Nnaoma Cassidy Ibe
“The human body is a fleeting thing, but a virtuous name will never be blotted out. Have regard for your name since it will outlive you longer than a thousand hoards of gold. The days of a good life are numbered but a good name lasts forever” (Ecclesiasticus or Sirach 41:11-13) When I first heard that a certain internationally acclaimed Nigerian writer, has finally bowed to the inevitable invitation from the Elysian Fields at 82 , I held my breathe for some seconds.
Then I said within myself, ‘Deo Gratias, Gloria tibi Domine’. Predictably, hundreds of gallons of ink have started spilling in the literary world, in honour of a writer who came, saw, fought, and conquered; a native of Ogidi in Anambra State of South-east Nigeria; a true ambassador of Ndigbo; a Nigerian of rare-breed; an epitome of those who have led a battle against marginalization, injustice, oppression and genocide; a writer whose works have sailed unto the four corners of the earth; a writer who has remained and continue to remain one of the best and greatest exports of Africa in the ‘international literary market': Chinua Achebe! Achebe!
He wrote with passion without minding whose ox is gored. His pen was indeed relentlessly fearless, as he tried to communicate the deep thoughts that flowed from the innermost recess of his literary being. He was simultaneously a novelist, poet, broadcaster, professor and critic. Achebe wrote more than 20 works, some of which were fiercely critical of politicians and a failure of leadership in Nigeria. The most widely acclaimed of his works, Things Fall Apart is generally regarded as the most widely read book in modern African English literature.
On its publication in 1958, the novel assumed a larger-than-life status, thereby stamping Achebe’s feet as a celebrity forever in the literary hall of fame. It has been said that Things Fall Apart has sold more than 12 million copies and been translated into 50 languages. If asked to describe it, I would say that Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is amazingly classic, a fantastic literature. Things Fall Apart is a story that transcends. It has classic qualities that a typical African can confidently say, “this is my story”: from Nigeria to Kenya, from Senegal to Zimbabwe, from Morocco to Tanzania, from Sierra Leone to Rwanda. If you want to know how proverbs are used in African literature, rush to Achebe.
He was a warrior, a literary ‘four-star general’, who went to the battlefield and emerged undisputedly ‘the champion’. All through his life, he was armed with every necessary ‘machinery’ a 20th century writer ought to be armed with. Truly, he paid his dues perfectly well. He was an embodiment of the fight against injustice, within and without. He was a whistle blower. He blew the ‘whistle’ when it was most necessary. In his Things Fall Apart, he blew the whistle against Joseph Conrad (Achebe in 1975 went ahead to describe Conrad as a ‘bloody) and all those misinformed white folks that viewed Africa from subhuman lenses.
Today, Africans have understood that they can tell their own story and tell it so well. (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has wonderfully demonstrated this fact). Twice, he was offered national honours (under Obasanjo and Jonathan respectively); twice he rejected it on two justifiable grounds: (a) because of the existence of a cabal, (in his own words “a small clique of renegades”) that has turned “my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom” (b) in my opinion, I believe strongly he did not want to share a national honour with personalities whose characters are ‘recurringly questionable’.
In a country where contracts and appointments have been characterized by ‘high profile lobbying’, Achebe conscientiously rejected a “national honour’ that was presented to him by two consecutive presidents. His ‘yes’ was always a ‘yes'; his ‘no’ was always a ‘no’. He also embodies all the traits of post-biafran emancipation. He has always shouted at the top of his voice on the highest literary mountain, reminding and indicting the collective Nigerian consciousness of the systematic attempt to ‘cut off’ the Igbo from the Nigeria’s ‘land of the living’. He used every opportunity at his disposal to transmit this message. He beat the drum, not just to the nation but also to the international ear.
In fact, he used his There was a Country to finally blast this message to every nook and cranny of the literary world. I am sure he knew his time was ‘at hand’ and because he who laughs last laughs best, Achebe used There was a country: A Personal History of Biafra to make the best and most forceful appeal and sensitization on the project embarked upon by some ‘ungodly forces’ in Nigeria to break the back of the Igbo carmel. He knew how to capture his audience and hold them in literary suspense. He knew how to make his readers laugh and cry. Read Things Fall Apart and you won’t fail to laugh out loud (LOL).
Read There was a Country: A personal History of Biafra and see how you will not hesitate to cry (or should I say ‘yell’ instead), shedding ‘yellow tears of the sun': tears caused by marginalization, tears caused by brutal savagery, tears caused by man’s inhumanity to man, tears caused by systematic oppression, tears caused by injustice, tears caused by mass starvation, tears caused by genocide. Torrents of superlative tributes have started pouring out from the world over. The BBC described him as the ‘founding father of Africa’s literature in English”. Nelson Mandela, who read Achebe’s work in jail, has called him a writer “in whose company the prison walls fell down.”
He went ahead to say that Achebe “brought Africa to the rest of the world” (in my impression, Achebe achieved with his pen and paper what Mandela achieved in his struggle for the enthronement of equity and social justice and fight against apartheid in South Africa). Expressing sadness at his death, the South African President Jacob Zuma described him as a “colossus of African writing”. Tim Cooks (who writes for the ‘Reuters’) says, “from the publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, over 50 years ago, Achebe shaped an understanding of Africa from an African perspective more than any other author. As a novelist, poet, broadcaster and lecturer, Achebe was a yardstick against which generations of African writers have been judged. For children across Africa, his books have for decades been an eye-opening introduction to the power of literature.” Nadine Gordimer, a Nobel Laurete from South Africa called him the “father of modern African literature” in 2007 when she was among the judges to award him the Man Booker International Prize in honour of his literary career.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whom I would describe as Chinua Achebe’s 21st century daughter made this submission in 2008: “I didn’t know people like me could exist in books. I had assumed that books, by their very nature, had to have English people in them. Then I read Things Fall Apart. For me, it was a glorious shock of discovery. Here was a book with characters who had familiar names like Okonkwo and Ezinma…what I know for sure, is that I would not be the writer I am if it wasn’t for Chinua Achebe.” Professor Tim Uzodimma Nwala in his tribute noted, “It is hard to say Achebe has passed on.
I think he took his place among the greatest like Homer, Pushkin, Shakespeare and other great writers. Remember he was the author and founder of African literature, and these live forever. So, I am not sad because Achebe is still here with us and will continue to live as long humanity endures. I am proud that I knew such a great man so closely. And I am convinced he played his role and left the rest to history.” Nwala went ahead to state that he cannot grieve over an outstanding man who lived fully and left so much mark in history that he can never die. Thus for him, “Achebe is immortal”. In a journal titled “Emerging Perspectives on Achebe” Professor Ernest Emenyonu noted that Achebe is “Africa’s master storyteller and pioneer literary philosopher of the 20th century”.
Emenyonu went further: “We have in him more than any other writer in the second half of the 20th century, an artist who has influenced for the better, the course of World Literature in English not only for his generation, but for eternity; a writer who, through his works, has touched and changed many lives; an African novelist who has ‘provided a renewed sense of African heritage, history, and tradition.’ The deputy speaker of the House of Representatives in Nigeria, Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha noted that “Nigeria has lost a titan of incomparable proportion.
For Prof. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, “Achebe was a movement, not just a man. He will never die”. Jonathan said he would be greatly missed. And he said so rightly. Achebe would be missed by his dear wife Christy. He would be greatly missed by his four beloved children. He would be greatly missed by his grandchildren. He would be greatly missed by his immediate relatives. He would be greatly missed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, that young rising author of Half of a Yellow Sun who has found literary inspiration in Achebe’s style of writing. He would be greatly missed by Ndigbo. He would be greatly missed by Wole Soyinka (that other literary giant from the Yoruba axis). He would be greatly missed by Nigeria.
He would be greatly missed by Nelson Mandela. He would be greatly missed by those who have effectively demonstrated the art and mastery of storytelling. He would be greatly missed by all those who have devoted themselves to the apostolate of pen, ink and paper. He would be greatly missed in the world of letters. Above all, he would be greatly missed by my humble self. Chinua Achebe, indeed you were a rare writer of sublime flawlessness. Requiescat in Pace, Amen Ibe writes via [email protected]