By Ebele Orakpo
Eulogies have continued to pour in for the late literary icon, Professor Chinua Achebe, this time from an ex-student and a colleague who spoke on Achebe’s relationship with students and colleagues.
Prof. Damian Opata of the Department of English and Literary Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) whom Achebe taught post-graduate course between 1978 and 1979 at UNN has this to say; “Achebe was a great, kind, humble teacher, who saw teaching both as a mission and a heavily ideological undertaking. He was patient, humble, friendly and always helpful.”
On his part, Prof. Joseph Ezigbo, the Managing Director of Falcon Petroleum Ltd, and Achebe’s former colleague described him as a fantastic man who could keep you on your toes for hours on end. He described his relationship with colleagues as very cordial.
Recalling an incident that happened back then, Opata said; “We were three students in his class: late Prof. Okey Umeh, Mr. Nicholas Onyechefuna (now at Fed. Poly Idah), and myself.
“He had asked us to “Define an appropriate role for the writer in Nigeria (Africa?). I don’t recall exactly. But I recall the manner I approached the question. As all his scholars know, one of Achebe’s important critical essays is, The Novelist as a Teacher.
“At the end of the exams, my colleagues were telling me how much they ‘finished’ Achebe by quoting copiously from this essay. I was satisfied with myself for another reason.
“I had critically, I supposed, deflated that essay. I had argued that it is not the right of any person to decree on how a writer should write. To assure Achebe that I had read his essay, I tried to recall in what a manner a novelist is not a teacher in the usual sense of the term.
“I do not know the merit or lack of it of my answer, but I scored a “C” in the exam. My colleagues scored better and I attributed my score to Achebe’s ‘narrowness of mind,’ the normal fault-finding students do when they do not perform well in some courses.
“Much later in life, I had reasons to rethink my opinion. After all, I answered three questions. So my assessment was not based just on that one question. In all probability then, I must have performed badly in the two others. I still don’t know the truth.
“It is not just social maturation that led me to reconsider this grade affair. Something else brought me closer to Achebe. “I had written an article published in Research in African Literatures in which I tried to exculpate Okonkwo from the act of killing Ikemefuna in Things Fall Apart.
“In the process, I repudiated the narrative voice which says that “he was afraid of being thought weak.” Shortly after that, there was a discussion in the Institute of African Studies in which Achebe featured. I didn’t know he had read the article until he called me and said to me that he had read my article on the killing of Ikemefuna, adding that he never knew that any writer could argue along that line. Then to my surprise, he said, “and you are right.”
Prof. Ezigbo who noted that Achebe was super intelligent, however, regretted that “until he died, the powers-that-be did not find it fit to give him the Nobel Prize. He was a very strong personality who knew how to express himself and put things in the context in which they belonged, a man of very rare qualities.
“A lot of us valued him because of his abilities, his command of language, whatever language it is. He can hold a conversation and thrill you, the way he crafts and delivers it. I will say he was a man of the people. A man who had to leave the stage at the peak of a controversy which people little understood but I know his works will certainly set the records straight.”
On relationship with colleagues, Opata said; “He treated us as colleagues, although I was a Junior Fellow in the same department. He was ever waiting for us in his office anytime we had a class with him.
“He never really pontificated on any emergent issues, always leaving us to come to our own informed decisions.” His capacity for listening stood him out. There was no internet in Nigeria then, and the library was not the best in terms of availability of relevant texts. Achebe’s library was our library; he allowed us free access to his books and helped us with references and photocopies of what we needed but could not find either in the University Library or in his own library.“
When the Association of Nigerian Authors met at Nsukka about the same time Achebe was teaching me, I was among those he co-opted into the sub-committee on accommodation, I had the opportunity to meet him on a non-teacher-student basis. He was ever so soft spoken, and probably because of his patience, he paid almost too much attention to detail. It was not enough for you to tell him that this or that hotel had good accommodation for x number of delegates.