There’s little that can be said about Chinua Achebe that has not been said. Little to know about him that even the most ignorant of us has not caught in the last one month and so days. From the greatest of orators and the very best of writers to unheard names, common people and just about almost anyone with a voice from around, the Achebian fever has gone on and on and now, whatever else we say might simply be a cliché. Still, the combined claps of a town must not stop anyone person from putting their palms together for if every one was to do so, wouldn’t there be a conquering silence?
The best way to talk of him – Achebe – then is not to simply say what everybody knows but simply bring out of our goatskin bag of wisdom to give our personal tributes to the worthy man. In this history, we shall stick to his writings, mainly so that we don’t get to go on and on and on. For indeed, if we were to tell the whole story of the man, Chinua Achebe, not even all the books in this world would contain it. And this, we all know.
Chinualumogu Albert Achebe was born on the 16th of November, 1930 in Ogidi, present day Anambra state. We shall call him Chinua. Not in disrespect to this father of ours, and towering legend who lives on in our heart but because in his ways, he was too personal, too much of our friend and brother to be addressed in any formal title that robs of that familiarity that he in his numerous works endeared to our hearts.
Chinua was born at the near infant days of Christianity in his land. His father, Isaiah, was himself an Anglican Catechist. In his life though, it would be the traditions of his people, and the quest to tell their story that would burn a firmer passion in Chinua’s life.
He entered St. Philips’ Central School where he had his first primary education. When he was 12, Chinua moved to Nekede and enrolled at the Central School where his elder brother, John taught. In 1944, he wrote exams and on getting the choice of two schools after a sterling result, he chose Government College, Umuahia. That paved the way for meetings and a tradition that fixed him with the likes of Christopher Okigbo, Chukwuemeka Ike, Elechi Amadi, INC Aniebo, Ken Saro-wiwa, Gabriel Okara, Obi Nwakanma, Alexander Madiebo to mention but a few of the towering novelists and poets that wore uniform robes in that prestigious institute.
Chinua moved from Government College, Umuahia to the University College, Ibadan, famous for its strong English faculty that included J. P. Clark, Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka and Elechi Amadi. He got a scholarship to study Medicine but after a year, forfeited his scholarship to study English, History and Theology. After his final examinations, Chinua earned a second-class degree in 1953. This set him back a bit as he weighed options after not having received the highest degree possible.
There’s a whole lot more that we can put in between that history and all but perhaps we should jump to a defining point in history, 1958, the year of the publication of Things Fall Apart. The book was not the first African work of literature as a steady literature for Africa was already thriving written by mainly whites (Joseph Conrad being the main voice). There were other Africans – even Nigerians – who had published before 1958 too. There was Cyprian Ekwensi and Amos Tutuola to mention two prominent examples. Things Fall Apart changed the thinking of the world on Africa, its literature and its people. Now, Chinua wrote other books that continued the trend of changing views on Africa and its writers – No Longer at Ease. There was also Arrow of God (and can you forget Ezeulu, the man striding between the gods and man)? A Man of the People came out in 1966. While people abroad hailed Chinua Achebe for being a prophet, he was accused of having an idea of the coup plot that happened a few days after its publication.
Let us skip for a few seconds to the Nigerian civil war where Chinua played a prominent role. 1967 – 1970 and arguably not less than a million lives lost. That war defined the lives of many Igbos and was a turning point in the life of our nation, Nigeria. Somehow, life continued.
Chinua Achebe published The Trouble with Nigeria in 1983, himself actively involved in politics then. He wrote Anthills of the Savannah in 1987, a critique of Kangan, a country near resembling Nigeria. I might add that it is a solid post-colonial text which I had the honour of investigating in the same light during my undergraduate days in the comfortable companionship of my friend, Andrew Bula, Joshua Agbo (who was in Linguistics charting different roads), Terna Ortese and Dr. Andrew Aba, my supervisor, who himself did his PhD thesis on the works of Chinua Achebe. I can mention inspiration from Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Hyginus Ekwuazi, Eugenia Abu and many others but that would be to put my name where it should least come out. I can only say here that a bond grew from this work here, Chinua creating links where they never might have been.
In 1981, he started the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) and was the first President. This wasn’t the first writing body started in the country but it is the strongest today and the body under which we are gathered today, as at other moments, to share the beauty of the comradeship of the ink of our thoughts devoid of grade, gender, heights and the like. Devoid of these but not condescending in any way. Chinua was also at the headship of many Pan-African, Pro-Black, Pro Afro-American progression, movements, writers and the rest.
In October 2012, Chinua published There was a country to critical rave reviews. It has remained a controversial book to this day. In between all these publications, there are many other lectures, critical works, interviews, awards, Doctorate, Honourary and traditional titles that this towering Iroko of the world garnered. The Eagle, Chinua, finally took his flight to ancestral domes on March 22nd, 2013 after a fulfilling but not so fulfilled life as some might argue. He was an inspiration to many and a close friend.
He was married to Christie (nee Okoli), a marriage blessed with four children: Chinelo, Ikechukwu, Chidi, Nwando and grandchildren. Of the literary children, one can hardly say more.
I have left so much out but what more can one write when consigned to write the history of a man whose story is far richer than several lives put together? What do we say of a man’s story whose story is our collective story? Do we talk about the patriot, the writer, the activist, the ambassador, the teacher, the human, the family man, the friend, the enemy, the ancestor or the living one, the legacies? Do we talk of the decoloniosation? Of the lone voice calling many? Do we talk of the humility? Every leaf of this iroko is a tale and who dares to tell the tale of every leaf of one of the greatest trees known not just to our parts but the entire world?
It is left to say, as I have mentioned severally, that one who lives on in our heart more firmly than those whose breath still flow through the nostrils, is that one really dead? So as the others claim a mourning, we delight in a celebration of Chinua and welcome us all as we reflect in thoughtful, casual, or just personal tributes to him for whom most of us can boldly say: ‘We know where the rain beat our ancestors and so can tell our tale.’ May he live on in our hearts, our thoughts and our nation.
*Su’eddie Vershima Agema is the Vice Chairman, Association of Nigerian Authors (Benue State Chapter)
At the Benue ANA ‘Evening of Tributes to a Literary Genius’ held at the Benue State University, Makurdi on 2nd May, 2013
- Chinua Achebe: Death, Where Are Thy Claws? – Niyi Osundare (sueddie.wordpress.com)
- Evening of Tributes for a Literary Genius (anabenue.wordpress.com)
- CFP: Remembering Chinua Achebe (africainwords.com)
- Cymbals from Achebe’s death bed…. (vanguardngr.com)
- Prof Chinua Achebe is dead (vanguardngr.com)
- Prof. Wole Soyinka And J.P. Clark Say Kano Bombing May Have Hastened Chinua Achebe’s Death (peacebenwilliams.com)
- Celebrating a Literary Giant: Rest In Peace, Chinua Achebe! (wholewomannetwork.org)
- Characters Pull the Story, Quote by Chinua Achebe (silverbirchpress.wordpress.com)
- New York Senate passes resolution on Achebe (vanguardngr.com)
- BREAKING NEWS: Chinua Achebe Is Dead! (rewindonnet.wordpress.com)
- Renowned Nigerian Novelist Chinua Achebe Dead At 82 (hiphopwired.com)