By Pini Jason
ONE of the memorable days of my life was, and still is, the day in 1987 when I spent a whole day with the legend himself, Prof. Chinua Achebe and his wife Christy at their home in Umunkanka Street, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
It was not strictly the usual interview. It was more of a conversation during which we forayed into the master story teller’s study, strolled into the garden at the back of the house, invaded Christy’s kitchen and chatted over lunch. He spoke about Hopes and Impediments in which he interrogated Conrad, Joyce and racism, which was about to be published.
Christy, I first met when she was a Director of Thisweek magazine where I worked. Ike, his first son later became a friend and frequented my office at Bishop Oluwole, Victoria Island Lagos, where I was editing the Insider Confidential with Mallam Abba Dabo. Ike also brokered my being offered the African editorship of African Commentary, an international scholarly magazine which Achebe was the Chairman/Publisher with Prof. Barth Nnaji as President and Chief Operating Officer. Somewhere along the line, my negotiation with Prof. Nnaji broke down.
When Chinua Achebe Foundation started the dialogue series, I was contacted by Chidi (who became the youngest ever to be appointed a Medical Director in the US) to interview some notable Nigerians. Among those I interviewed were Gen. MuhammaduBuhari, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, Chief Ernest Shonekan, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, Dr. Kalu Idika Kalu, Deacon Gamaliel Onosode, Chief Anthony Enahoro and Gen. Buba Marwa.
Two things Achebe, the teacher, told me at Nsukka remain the prism through which I have observed his literary activities. When I asked him his motivation for Things Fall Apart, he said to me, every generation has a responsibility to tell its own story and that he was simply discharging his own obligation. Then I asked him if he originally set out to write a masterpiece and he said, once you have told your story, it assumes a life of its own; you no longer control what interpretation people give to it or what they do with it.
Such was the humility and graciousness of a man who winced at the accolade “father of African literature”! As the fire of controversy raged over what has become his last testament, There Was a Country, Achebe’s words rang loud in my ears. As a novelist, critic and essayist, Achebe told the stories of his generation and whatever his critics chose to do with his stories remained a choice outside his control and he would not and will now never join issues with us. The burden is ours and comes with the liberty of individual thoughts!
What set Achebe apart from his peers were his clarity of thought and lucidity of language. He was a resonant voice whenever we needed someone to speak up for us. That was why, as a seer, his pronouncements on our nation were searing.
Thus, when he declared that, “The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership”, it rankled our leaders.
But nothing has happened to prove him wrong. He was aware of the limitations of the brusque military transformation as pursued by the likes of Murtala Muhammed and warned that, “In the final analysis, a leader’s no-nonsense reputation might induce a favourable climate but in order to effect lasting change it must be followed up with a radical programme of social and economic re-organisation or at least a well-conceived and consistent agenda of reform which Nigeria stood, and stands, in dire need of”. Can anybody fault these two positions well enunciated in his book, The Trouble with Nigeria?
We still wonder why our enormous resources have not translated our grandiose but vacuous claim to greatness into reality. Eminent economists are today no longer so keen to submit that natural resources, no matter how abundant, automatically transform nations into greatness; they now agonise about “resource curse”. But Achebe was aware of this, years back.
He disputed Nigeria’s arrogant claim to greatness based on material wealth simply because the “seminal absence of intellectual rigour in the political thought” still plagues our country today just because anybody, just anybody with money can become a political leader! We are spending more money than ever, yet, Nigeria has remained “one of the most disorderly nations in the world. It is one of the most corrupt, insensitive, inefficient places under the sun”. This indictment was long before various surveys and perception indices came to confirm some of these vices. If Achebe had any unfulfilled dream, it is that Nigerian has recalcitrantly remained an unfulfilled dream!
We need not mourn Achebe. He lived out his destiny and discharged his obligation by telling the story of his generation.Achebe made the Igbo story a global story. Things Fall Apart has been translated into over 50 different languages of the world. He left no vacuum. He sired many writers who are today holding out admirably. The likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an offspring of the dusty but literarily fecund Nsukka, Seffi Atta, Ben Okri and a host of the new generation writers are telling the story of their own generation. And with the stories Achebe left us, he cannot die.
One of the things I noticed in the recent noise that greeted his There Was a Country was that many of Achebe’s critics begrudged him of his Igboness. His long standing friend, Biodun Jeyifo’s series on the book dwelt almost exclusively on questing Achebe’s right in asserting his Igboness. Achebe could not have pretended to be anything else but Igbo. He was a proud one.
There is no crime in being who we are, especially in a country that has deliberately and constitutionally fettered its journey to nationhood. The trouble with tribalism in Nigeria is that we want others not to be who they are but to be like us. We respect no other cultural group but ours.
That is why we have been unable to manage our differences (politicians call it diversity), hence competition easily degenerates into conflict. What we should pursue is not ethnic supremacy (mine is a race and your is a tribe) but what Achebe quoted as Mallam Aminu Kano’s established rationale for any politician to seek the people’s mandate: “maintenance of peace in the land” and “establishment or extension of social justice among the citizens”. What injures the other cannot be good for us and what is good for us must be good for the other!
Achebe’s life work is done. For over 50 years he was the dominant figure in Africa’s literary firmament. The furore about his last story on earth had hardly subsided when he decided to became the topic of discussion. What a man!
To live and function fully through the crippling effect of his 1990 road accident in Nigeria is a testament to the audacity of will. We, who are not crippled, except by greed and corruption, must, at least, muster the courage to lift ourselves from the morass to change our country. The onus is now ours, not Achebe’s.