Dele Momodu: As the world mourns Chinua Achebe
Fellow Nigerians, let me join you and countless others across the universe in celebrating the life of one of our few global Ambassadors, Professor Albert Chinualumogu Achebe, who took a final bow two days ago as the curtain was closed on his spectacular performance on the world stage. It was a total blackout as the lights dimmed for a man who had sparkled under the klieg-lights for half a century of his 82 years on earth.
The rumour of his death had earlier crept in last week but that was soon dismissed as arrant joke. But this time around, the news came back with a renewed vigour and slammed at us like a ferocious thunderstorm.
It was impossible for an Achebe to have gone quietly. The era of social media had foreclosed that possibility. Every family now has a stake in the new media that makes everyone an automatic reporter. Those days are gone when we had to wait for media houses that had to wait for confirmation from those not ready to confirm anything. These days we capture the news as soon as the first tear drops from the eyelids of the bereaved. Such is the advancement of technology.
When I got the news of Achebe’s death yesterday, I was in the process of writing a different letter to some political office holders. I was thus faced with a dilemma of whether to postpone Achebe’s tribute to next week or do an instant justice to it. As a journalist, I understood the importance of seizing the moment, when the news is still oven-fresh and current and everyone is definitely in the mood to ask questions and get answers instantly. That helped to sway my decision to write the piece you are now reading.
As a Twitter devotee, I was able to test the waters and got the confirmation that Achebe’s news was a hot item on the front burner and I needed to serve it nicely. My timeline was on fire as soon as I fired my first shot: “An elephant has fallen. The Iroko has collapsed. The Eagle has departed. Good night, Professor Chinua Achebe.” I got countless retweets for it and it kept flowing all day.
I soon fired a second tweet that tried to capture a play on the wordings of Achebe’s popular titles: “When the arrow of God is fired, things fall apart, and a man of the people is no longer at ease.” My followers responded with incredible frenzy. That tweet was meant to bring back memories of the novels that turned boys into men.
We did not stop there. I tweeted a more serious one: “It is a sad day for the world of Literature as one of its greatest icons, Prof Albert Chinualumogu Achebe, joins his ancestors…” This reflected the sobriety that engulfed the world as the news spread across like bush fire in harmattan. I took the news nearer home when I tweeted this: “A sad day indeed for the irrepressible Ndigbo, as its iconoclastic Ambassador, Prof Albert Chinualumogu Achebe, departs this sinful world!”
The Twitter went wild with all manner of creative tweets that serenaded our minds with what the world has lost with the demise of Achebe. Most of them were positive while a few people still found the time and space to send and spread messages of hate and bitterness. Some Nigerians were still polarised along ethnic lines at a time we have the opportunity to unite and celebrate an undoubtedly great man who did us all very proud.
As for me and my house, Achebe was one of the best things that ever happened to the Black race. He was a superlative scholar of no mean achievement. He was a quintessential teacher whose simple diction was as easy as eating boiled yam with palm-oil. He was a writer who used the English language to describe a strange world the Whiteman was never familiar with.
Achebe was an exceptional Poet who composed his verses in the sonorous fashion of an African Griot. He was anuncommon politician who had the conscience to resist the allure and appurtenances of power, and knew when to throw in the towel rather than join the rat race. He was a philosopher-king who applied logic to our illogical existence. He was an iroko tree who stood solidly against injustice and refused to be blown apart by evil spirits.He was the irrepressible warrior who fired his arrows at ungodly men and made sure they were never at ease. He was the ultimate man of his people, the Ndigbo, and defended their interests to the very end.
I, like many of my contemporaries, was introduced to Achebe in our early days. It was impossible in those good old days not to have read all of Achebe’s works. Literature had always been one of my favourite subjects at St. John’s Grammar School, Oke-Atan in Ile-Ife, where a Singaporean woman, Mrs H Sutton took on us on a tour de force of the literary world. We read voraciously as if literature was going out of vogue. The beauty of Achebe was in his simplicity which was also a reflection of his personal gentle mien.
I must have read his classic, Things Fall Apart, half a dozen times. I was permanently fascinated by the manner he depicted the ancient tales of his people like the master story-teller that he was. This novel remains, probably, the most translated English novel of all times. I was shocked yesterday when my 15-year old son, who was brought back from England to school in Nigeria, rated Things Fall Apart as his most exciting literary work ever, followed by Wole Soyinka’s The Trials of Brother Jero. Such was the impact of Achebe’s writing prowess on even the ajebota (butter-eating) generation.
Achebe’s characters remain so vivid in real life, the most famous being Okonkwo, who was embroiled in the battle between tradition and the new civilisation that threatened how people used to live their lives. Obi, the grandson of Okonkwo, is the tragic hero in No Longer at Ease, written in 1960, about the time bribery and corruption sneaked into Nigeria and has remained with us ever since.
Ezeulu, a Chief Priest of Ulu village, is the central figure in Achebe’s third novel, Arrow of God, published in 1964. The story is steeped in theclash between Igbo traditional religion and the new European Christianity that was introduced by the colonial masters. Achebe’s amazing satire, A Man of the People, published in 1966, has its main character in Odili Samalu from a village called Anata. The powerful story was a foretaste of the impending doom and the conflagration that accompanied the coup of Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. The politicians were so stupidly careless that only they did not have a premonition of the danger ahead.
Achebe was such a clairvoyant prophet who saw way ahead of most Nigerian leaders. He gave sufficient warnings but no one heeded his loud admonitions because they were dogs completely deaf to the hunter’s whistle. He continued to ruffle some feathers and never got tired of stirring the hornet’s nests. His most recent, and last, gift to the world was the controversial memoir, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. This book generated so much furore till the end. It was as if Achebe had deliberately left this stupendously daring work to be his parting shot to a country that must have caused him undying trauma most of his adult life.
Achebe would not only be remembered in terms of personal achievement. He influenced so many generations of writers at home and abroad. It was Achebe who made African literature, especially the novel genre, very attractive and addictive to members of my generation. He cleared the narrow path for others who came after him. Through the influence of Achebe, we all began to devour the beautiful works of Cyprian Ekwensi, Wole Soyinka, Elechi Amadi, John Munonye, Gabriel Okara, John Pepper Clarke, Christopher Okigbo, Kole Omotoso, Chukwuemeka Ike and others. We soon migrated to other African writers who were published under the famous African Writers Series of Heinemann Books.
Achebe was the benefactor who selected James Ngugi’s (now Ngugi wa Thiong’o) first novel Weep Not Child, 1964, for publishing. Ngugi has since become one of the literary giants of Africa, with such works as The River Between, 1965,A Grain of Wheat, 1967, Petals of Blood, 1977 and Devil On The Cross, 1982, among so many others.
We devoured the works of many African writers, such as Kofi Awoonor, Ama Ata Aidoo and AyiKweiAhmah, Sembene Ousmane, Mariama Ba, Nuruddin Farah, Nawal el Saadawi, NaguibMahfooz, Ferdinand Oyono, Mongo Beti, MbellaSonneDipoko, Meja Mwangi, YamboOuologuem, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Alex La Guma, and other great African authors with relish.
With the exception of the resoundingly versatile Wole Soyinka, the Kongi of African Literature, it is doubtful if any African writer enjoys the popularity of Achebe on the global scene. There is no argument that no African novel would have sold half of Achebe’s copies. I always dreamt of a day Chinua Achebe would join Soyinka as our second Nobel laureate but he never realised that dream despite winning all the other top prizes in Literature.
As painful as his death definitely is to his families, friends and admirers, the world takes consolation in his works as gifts to humanity. His departure must not end with the usual eulogies and jamborees. We must preserve his outstanding legacy by making his books compulsory read in all our secondary schools and universities. No Nigerian student must ever escape owning a copy of Achebe’s work before graduation. It is the least we can do to keep his memory alive.