IN REMEMBRANCE OF AN ACCOMPLISHED LITERARY ICON
What surprised me about the death of Prof. Albert Chinụalụmọgụ Achebe on 21st March 2013 was not because l expected him to live forever. At 82, he was not too young to die. I was shocked because there was no news that he was ill!
One doesn’t need a prophet to tell one that in spite of Achebe’s renown in literature and the joy that should emanate from such a global fame, he did not die a happy man, and the source of his unhappiness was nothing else but the poor state of Nigeria, his fatherland. His writings since 1966 when he published A Man of the People (which prophesied a military coup that toppled a very corrupt government) showed that Achebe was not happy with the way his country had fared after the much awaited independence in 1960. That unhappiness with the fortunes of Nigeria continued through the Nigerian Civil War. It is obvious that the tragic events that started from the massacre of the Igbo in 1966 and culminated in a war that was fought with so much hatred and bloodthirstiness between 1967 and 1970 shocked Achebe to the marrows. Years later, Achebe seemed to turn to nonfiction, producing two well-discussed and well-quoted books: Trouble with Nigeria (1984) and There was a Country (2012). It seemed Achebe got tied of talking to his countrymen in parables and riddles ( of fiction) without them listening, and therefore decided to talk to them in the plain language of nonfiction, hoping that they would hear and understand. That the Civil War of 1966 to 1970 left a deep scar on Achebe was manifest in his publishing his war memoirs (There was a Country) 42 years after the end of that war, and expressing his views of the war in very strong terms.
Although Achebe lived five decades of his adult life in the limelight following the publication of Things Fall Apart at age 28—he never seemed comfortable with fame and attention. Indeed as Charles Larson had noted, “Few writers live to observe the fiftieth anniversary of their novels—let alone with increasing readership.” But Achebe’s modesty forbade him from exhibiting any signs of greatness or relishing his celebrity status. He would stay quiet at most meetings, yielding space for younger colleagues to talk, and offering wise counsel only when extremely necessary.
Unlike some persons that need solitude to work, Achebe was easily accessible even when he is writing. Once the muse is there, hardly any form of distraction will deter him from his project. He was accessible and always willing to listen to people’s problems, to assist wherever he can.
Achebe was so at ease, so at peace with himself, and cautious with criticism during conversations. He would quietly say O ka fa mada be (it’s the limit of their knowledge) in describing the shortsightedness of Nigeria’s political leaders. His humility and measured words generally made most visitors, including children, comfortable in his company. He would joke and banter with children, as if he were talking with a colleague. That was not really surprising, seeing how at home he was with his own grandchildren, and also given the kind of consciousness with which he wrote Chike and the River and other children’s books.
Additionally, I could see in his unpretentious disposition the kind of cosmopolitan vision that enabled him to support his two daughters to marry non-Igbos in an often ethnically-charged society. Yet, some of his worst critics following the publication of There Was a Country have accused him of hating Yorubas because he criticized an icon of the Yorubas, Chief Obafemi Awolowo- something he had done multiple times in the past. Such critics are clearly oblivious of the fact that Achebe’s grandchildren have Yoruba and Itsekiri blood, and therefore in “hating” Yorubas Achebe would have to hate his very family.
Achebe demonstrated the power of the written word, sparking stormy debates with his books in the hallowed precincts of the ivory tower and in street corners of urban cities and African villages. Amongst other scholars, the critic Charles Larson and Lyn Innes, with whom Achebe edited an anthology of short stories, respectively capture the significance of Achebe’s work. In Larson’s words, “Nigerians on the street are certainly proud of the novel (Things Fall Apart) and of their compatriot’s fame; it is the one novel they are most likely to have read or at least to know about.”
Achebe was writing, lecturing, holding conferences, giving speeches, writing press statements, giving interviews. He was active, even after the 1990 accident that paralyzed him from waist down, and at 82. Achebe’s first son, Ike linked his father’s death to the car accident he had in 1990 – 27 years ago. Achebe was rushing to Enugu to catch a flight to Lagos when he had an accident near Awka, Anambra State. The car somersaulted and fell on top of Achebe, causing him serious injuries. This was months after the University of Nigeria, Nsukka hosted an international 60th birthday conference in his honour.
No doubt, the 1990 car crash which paralysed him from the waist downwards would naturally have had an enormous impact on him, but Achebe was a fighter that never gave up or wanted pity. No matter the impact of that accident on him, it could not have been compared to the impact the poor state of Nigeria had on him. It was obvious that Achebe was completely disillusioned with what the country he joined to fight for its independence had turned out to be. He was constantly faced with reality that this is not the country that he dreamt about: that there was a country called Nigeria, and that what he saw as the days went by was not that same country. And most instructively, that an 82-year-old national icon like Achebe died in the United States of America, not seeking medical care but working in a university, when there are many universities in Nigeria where he could have stayed to impart knowledge, if he so wished, is a reason for us to be ashamed of, if we have not gone beyond the bounds of shame!
Those who appreciate Achebe will never mourn him; they will celebrate him for he has affected many lives and will affect more in the years ahead. For Achebe, no fanfare could be too elaborate in celebration of his far reaching literary dedication and activism. Indeed, the minstrels and literati must assemble with the muse serving as host for a theatrical festivity in honour of a worthy, rare breed and iconoclastic personality!
© 2017 Adeogun Oluwakayode