Tribute: Achebe – The African writer whose pen had a conscience

by Dolapo Aina

Achebe: The ventriloquial Iroko

“Writers don’t give prescriptions; they give headaches”-Anthills of the Savannah- Chinua Achebe (1930-2013)

 “The moving finger writes, and having written moves on; nor all thy piety and wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line. Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it,” -Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1883) in the Rubbaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

“Writing is very easy. All you have to do is sit in front of a typewriter keyboard until little drops of blood appear on your forehead”-Red Smith

“Language has not the power to speak what love incites. The soul lies buried in the ink that writes,” John Clare

In the evening of Friday, the 22th of March 2013, I stepped into the cyberspace and after opening several web pages; my attention was arrested by a headline in The Guardian news paper website. The headline indicated that Prof Albert Chinualumogu Achebe, the foremost Nigerian poet, writer, author, essayist and social commentator had passed on the previous Thursday. Nelson Mandela had once called him “the writer in whose company the prison walls came down”, and credited him “as the author who “brought Africa to the rest of the world”. Someone described Achebe as “a great man and academic star who was fearless to tell the truth as he saw it.” For someone who hardly reveals verbal exclamations in not-too-familiar surroundings, I had to exclaim “Ha! Oh my God!”

According to Microsoft Encarta, Professor Chinua Achebe, was born in 1930 in Ogidi. He was a Nigerian novelist and poet, widely recognized as the father of the African novel. His first and most influential novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), was written partially in indignation over the distorted and dehumanized representations of Africans in European fiction. The novel set the theme for Achebe’s later works: the changes brought about by Western influences on traditional African society. Unsentimental and often ironic, Achebe’s writings vividly conveyed the culture and the speech of the Igbo people. Born in Nigeria, when Nigeria was still a British colony, Achebe studied at a missionary school and earned a degree in English literature and history from the University College of Ibadan (now the University of Ibadan). He subsequently taught at various universities in Nigeria and the United States, including a long tenure as professor of languages and literature at Bard College in New York State.

Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart in response to British colonialism and its human consequences. The book describes how the Igbo society began to fall apart after the arrival of European colonizers and missionaries in the late 1800s. Achebe’s subsequent novels No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966), and Anthills of the Savannah (1987) describe the struggles of African individuals to bridge the gap between European expectations and African values, practices, and ways of life. In these novels traditional African society is repeatedly destroyed.

The unblemished truth must be stated here, not until I read the first two chapters of “There Was A Country” did it occur to me that I hadn’t actually read any of Chinua Achebe’s books (Arrow of God, No longer At Ease and Arrow of God to name a few). How this eluded me during my secondary schools days, I can’t say. I discussed this disturbing finding with an acquaintance, who also confirmed likewise. The closest we got to “Things Fall Apart” was the TV series adaption of the globally-acclaimed book which was aired on State TV (NTA) in the early 80s. Anyone who watched the TV series would easily remember Okonkwo, perhaps the best-known character in modern African writing in English. And would definitely recollect and possibly hum or chorus the soundtrack to the TV series.

Sometime in the final quarter of 2012, I was bombarded with a “barrage” of “There Was a Country” commentaries, reviews et al in the pages of news pages. I was not intimate with the uproar until I was at Business Hallmark newspaper, when the publisher (a former commissioner of information for Anambra and an avid reader) pulled out the hardcover copy of the acclaimed book and the excited uproar amongst the editorial board was evident. According to the publisher, a close friend from the North gave him a copy during the Muslim festivities as a gift. From then on, any comment on the book was devoured, scrutinised and analysed by me. But as the reader would attest to, there is nothing as fulfilling as experiencing an historic event. And there is nothing like creating your own history (for big thinkers in the global scheme of things).

In the month of December 2012, I was held up in official duties, when I came across the paperback edition of the book. In a typical writer’s euphoric delight, I read with relish the first two chapters with the occasional pause to reflect on the masterpiece cum class-act of writing I read and saw before my eyes. I marvelled at the simple English I read. I was swept off my feet (not like a football defender’s tackle) by Chinua Achebe’s play with understandable grammar intertwined with witty-Ibo proverbs. There were occasions; I believe I must have shaken my head sideways like a bachelor who has finally found his angel. Other times, while reading the first two chapters I must have nodded my head like the proverbial Agama lizard.

All the head movements because I concluded without any inkling of doubt, that the book was, is and would still be a writer’s delight, a masterpiece of literal reckoning. I had to drop the book because of work and also because I was still engrossed in another book. I concluded that I would get the original copy (royalties must go the writer) and also original copies of his other books.

To be candid, any writer worth his/her salt must read or must have read a Chinua Achebe book. For young Nigerians who are desirous for information on what transpired pre, during and post the civil war, “There Was a Country” is another addition to the collection which includes the civil wars books by Fredrick Forsythe and Professor Wole Soyinka. Though, I haven’t read Wole Soyinka’s book on the civil war-The Man Died. During the Nigerian civil war (1967-1970), the government arrested Soyinka and held him in solitary confinement from 1967 to 1969. His time in jail prompted him to write the verse collection Poems from Prison (1969; republished as A Shuttle in the Crypt, 1972) and the prose work The Man Died (1972).

But one thing about true writers is this, true writers write and say it, the way it is”. Sometimes people in authority see or say that “writers’ utterances might seem and sound undiplomatic ;( undiplomatic when lilies and “chicken-liveredry” have been or are being made of supposedly vocal men.” But hardly do writers sell their conscience (unlike an erstwhile popular Friday columnist whose articles after crossing over are to say the least, an attempt at staining our collective intellectual fabric).

To use this present generation’s poetic state of literal mind, “real writers stay true to the game they proclaim, even if it hasn’t yet brought them fame and any deviation of the writer’s conscience is considered a shame.” The coined statement encapsulates Chinua Achebe. All what he said and wrote about Nigerian leaders, he reiterated for years. I remember he rejected national awards on two occasions (awards which now look like a “collection of civilised corporate cronies, convicts and celebrated criminals”). Twice Achebe was offered national honours. Twice he rejected them, arguing that “he was not one that would pose as holy in the day time and be in cosy alliance in the night with people he accuses in the day time”. And that “he was one who believed an elder should not eat his meal atop a heap of malodorous rubbish.”And as expected, the Rottweilers of the then president swung into action by going all out to discredit his rejection.

When this scenario played out some years ago, I asked Chief Pius Oladapo Odebiyi(now late), a prolific publisher during his time, for his take. I informed him then, that as a young writer, accepting a national award from any Nigerian government for now would be going against my conscience. Several years down the line, my conviction hasn’t moved an itch. The famous British movie director-Guy Ritchie, former husband of Madonna (the pop star), rejected a knighthood from the Queen, on the basis that he wanted to be amongst the normal Britons and not carrying suspended shoulders. He wanted to be able to move freely amongst the populace.

A day after Professor Achebe departed this world, reading through twitter exchanges between Femi Fani-Kayode and some of his followers, who believed Prof Chinua Achebe should have accepted the national awards, I pondered and I ask thus, why then are genuine writers termed the voices of the masses or the vocalised writings of the vocally suppressed masses? If the globally-acclaimed writer had picked up any national award from politically and ethically discredited and jaundiced administrations, would honest, point-blank, open-hearted encomiums be this massive for him? Even those politicians who apparently hadn’t read but wanted some political currency from the publication of “There Was a Country” are all “falling in line” like obedient soldiers to eulogise his creativity and uncompromising integrity.

Anyone who met him must have witnessed all this sterling qualities (Governor Fashola’s body language spoke volumes when both of them were at an event in America late last year 2012). Anyone who ever heard his numerous interviews on the BBC(I heard the last one on BBC World Book Club hosted by Harriett Gilbert in 2008/9 and wrote down his advice on being a good writer) would surely have noticed a simple but principled witty elderly man talking.

Forget the deliberate oversight of the Nobel committee for literature, we can re-write another literal world record you know. Nigerians should make it a priority to buy only original copies of all Chinua Achebe’s books. The royalties must not go to “over-clever” book pirates in Asia and their collaborators in Nigeria. Long before Nigeria gained her independence, Chinua Achebe had already set the ball rolling for African writers. African writers and particularly Nigerian writers (genuine writers and not sell-outs) should keep the ball rolling and in no way compromise their life-long painstakingly garnered credibility for several pieces of silver. “No Judas can flock with writers who are the masses’ shepherds.”

Chinua Achebe never did. As far as Achebe was concerned, a writer or any artist for that matter was first and foremost a human person with deep human feelings and ethos. Not even when, Curtis Jackson III (the rapper better known as 50cent) offered Chinua Achebe $1million to make use of or rather buy the rights of the title “Things Fall Apart” for a movie project, did he compromise his integrity. But with the 50cent issue, we might never really know whether it was sentiment that was involved. Considering the fact that a lot of young Nigerians know more of 50cent than the writer, maybe an understanding then between both parties could have brought the prestigious writer’s classic book to the attention of this present generation.

As someone opined in an article Although Achebe mentioned lizard in almost all his works, the honourable man of letters never learnt the art of lizarding. Chinua Achebe was not just a writer; he was a distinguished writer with the best and noblest of human virtues. A non-hypocrite. A non-bully.”  Another opined that Mr. Achebe was a gentle rebel who refused to shake the necrotic outstretched hands of corrupt leaders. He was an old breed, a wise man from a different generation who could not stand the wanton looting of Nigeria’s public coffers.”

What this great African writer has entrenched in young writers is that as we mature and become more analytically precise (like Navy SEAL snipers) in our writing and critical (like the Booker Prize Committee) in our reading, we must begin to understand the enormous power that stories have, and how much this power is moulded by who tells the stories and by how they are told. Also, that young Nigerians especially writers shouldn’t sell their birthrights for the simple excuse that they are hungry. Our soul and conscience as young Nigerians (and I daresay catalysts for change) should be nonnegotiable. Even though, Twitter has made loads of young people literally lazy to conjure up at least 500 intelligent words rather than 140 characters.

Someone opined that volumes have already been written and a lot more is still to come on the life and times of Professor Chinua Achebe. His works will last as long as English literature with an African slant is taught worldwide.” Chinua Achebe’s departure has re-emphasised that the only person who can immortalise you is YOU and you better do it in your lifetime. He did his in his lifetime.

Above all but most importantly, one would also hope that this great writer with a clear-cut conscience also sorted out his own salvation. Because at the end of it all, this is what truly matters. As inquisitive as a writer mind is, I can’t but ruminate on this again. I am quite baffled he was never awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Definitely, a deliberate oversight.

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Dolapo Aina writes from Lagos, Nigeria.

 

Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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