By Odi Moghalu
Our lives are defined by the inescapable influences of our times and experiences and writing is one avenue to entrap events for reflections, important references and the treasure of record-keeping. The outpouring of remarkable eulogies for Chinua Achebe is not surprising and added perspectives of his wonderful life cannot easily end. One, which I believe is salient of the literary Icon is that of an African activist and by implication an activist for humanity.
Africa emerging from the devastating impacts of about 450 years of vicious human kidnapping between 1441 – 1888 was subsequently saddled with the bequeathed legacy and burden of foreign occupation. The continent was not only ruled by imposed foreign governments but suffered from the inevitable consequences of imperialism. Its political, cultural and religious transformations also implied its representation to the world and itself was crafted by its foreign rulers. This entailed an image damage that its remnants are still embattled today. The emergence of people like Chinualumogu Achebe in Africa’s literary world was a great boost in countering many of these misrepresentation by Africa’s foreign occupiers.
Achebe was true to the principles and purposes of writing – to inform, educate entertain and persuade. This is said in the senses that there are writers who misinform, mis-educate, entertain for immodest reasons or who for wrong purposes persuade the minds of men. In the battle for hearts and minds in the literary world, Achebe, for his forthrightness, not only stood tall in his authentic writings of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and prose, but did so even when amidst forces that seemed stronger.
That Achebe’s novels thrived in the West inspite the fact that they could hardly have passed as pro-western literature is a testament to the power of his works and the respect they command. The bold and inspiring manner of his writings makes it imperative that Achebe must be first seen in light of his place as a literary activist for human freedom and that especially of the continent of his birth, Africa, which had remained in need of immense resuscitation from its bruised humanity. There is no gainsaying the thought that Achebe would have been celebrated many times over had he been a Western author. But he was not. The grace in his writings and speeches found admirers where he spent half his life. In our world that seek to bend truth to serve particular interests, his sheer nerve to withstand time-changing norms in culture and writing which sometimes seek to nudge history into oblivion while presenting an unaltered representation of reality was indeed his mark of greatness.
The genius of Achebe’s many literary works is that though their setting and plots were based on his land of birth, they very easily portray microcosms of similar occurrences throughout Africa. Their comprehension becomes easy and assimilative in Senegal, Gambia, Zambia, Tanzania, South Africa or Kenya etc not just to myriad classes and grades of academic societies but to culturally diverse cultural ones. Most of these literary works are now curators of cultural transformations through the twentieth century.
In his realistic fiction and world classic, Things Fall Apart, this work comes at an end of a colonial era in 1959, on the eve of Africa’s political freedom for a great majority of its nations became politically free from European rule in the 1960s and were at best in cultural conflict with its foreign rulers. Born in Ogidi, in Igboland in 1930, some 42 years after the end of Trans-Atlantic slavery, at a period of tremendous and sometimes epic political and socio-cultural transformations in Africa, Achebe watched with keen interest the reactions of the preceding generation on the imposed foreign governments not only introduced new political systems but introduced their foreign languages, educational patterns and audaciously, their religion, all alien to the African way of live in the era and relegated African political and cultural philosophy to the background. The three most significant agents of colonization were the government, schools and churches. This was not to pass the philosophical and literary scrutiny of a man like Achebe. The comparisons and contrasts between African and Western civilizations and values. The effects of this change are seen in his writings as he deeply introduced African philosophy to the level of incorporating idioms, proverbs and essentially world view of his people.
To the amazing changes of his time there’s the contrast of approach and characters with different worldviews which as the realistic fiction showed through hardliners like Okonkwo in “Things Fall Apart” and those who compromised like honored men like Obierika. Achebe, for example, described the impact of incursions of schools and churches as “potent irresistible tonic.” That tonic had won over his father, Isaiah Okafor Achebe and mother, Janet Anaenechi. His father became an evangelist and teacher in 1904 making Chinualumogu become a Christian by hereditary influence. A process that emerged devoid of the relevant consultations of his personal will. This later brought about an introspective interreligious struggles that were rife in his time and society which is obvious in his self-examinations, manifest in his literary expositions. Africa had to both fight the colonists to leave and ironically learned from them, a precarious contradictory experience.
The colonial era with its challenges produced a pioneer class of western educated Africans who had great aspirations and hopes for a new nation. Achebe talked of “a very special kind of inspiration” to resist the denigration of Africa by European occupiers. An inspiration he said powered great African nationalists like Nnamdi Azikiwe, Leopold Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Patrice Lumumba and Nelson Mandela. That inspired his literary style. “Some of us decided to tackle the big subjects of the day – imperialism, slavery, independence, gender, racism etc,” he wrote in page 54 of his last but profound book, ‘There Was A Country,’ “And some did not. One could write about roses or air or about love for all I cared; that was fine too. As for me, however, I chose the former.” This is what he prescribed as the role of a writer in the Africa. He became a novelist not just to entertain but to teach and inform. This is vintage Achebe. A man of stellar qualities who saw his life as one with a mission towards freedom and liberation of his people. He came forward in time to tell the story of his African people to the world. In this process, he was tried and tested in his odyssey. Though a celebrated writer, Achebe was equally a literary and social critique. It was only a man like Achebe that could in a lecture at Amherst University College on 18th February 1975 boldly speak against the error of promotion of racism through Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ in which according to him, “relegated Africa to the role of props for the breakup of one petty European mind.” A book of such racist slant, elevated to a literary text vastly read through out Western institutions of learning was definitely a promoter of the very issues that divided Africa and the West.
“A lucky generation” was what Achebe called his own in their pioneer role of leading a nation like Nigeria which stirred great expectations and showed enormous potential for greatness on the eve of colonial administration’s departure but the generation for all its hopes and aspirations for their society were deeply disappointed by a floundering nation that despite its immense intellectual and natural resources, stagnated under the adverse effects of corruption, ethnic and religious frictions and conflicts and serial failed leaderships. Achebe had noted this in his book, “the Trouble With Nigeria” published in 1983, an incisive and poignant expose of Nigeria as a country created from the wishes of colonial imperialists by forcefully amalgamating disparate ethnicities in a faulty political structure and an unworkable system that had cost incalculable lives, opportunities, wealth by its internal frictions and conflicts.
Achebe was not just Nigerian but a Biafran as well. He made a strong case for the fledgling nation to the world in his trips seeking international recognition of Biafra’s suffering and nationhood. In page 87 of his personal memoir on Biafra he wrote of the eve of emergence of the new but short-lived nation: “The movement toward a declaration of independence was very clear and sharp, because it was a result of a particular group of Nigerian citizens from the Eastern Region attempting to protect themselves from the great violence that has been organized and executed by arms of the government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. There was a strong sense that Nigeria was no longer habitable for the Igbo and many other people from eastern Nigeria.”
In the tragedy that was Biafra Achebe bore with his people, among many tribulations, the sheer cruel violence of Nigerian aggression, the heavy loss of a close friend and Internationally acclaimed writer, Christopher Okigbo, the incarceration of Wole Soyinka and starvation of 2 million Biafrans as Nigeria’s war policy. Post war state witnessed failed hopes and mis-governance which Achebe, after a stint in politics returned to writing but nevertheless voiced dissent at Nigeria’s maladministration that its crushing wait were telling on the vast population. He spoke out against corrupt leaderships, rejected national awards and instituted intellectual and academic exchanges in search for a part forward. He was not only a writer but a teacher and defender of the oppressed.
With his classic, “Things Fall Apart” selling over 12 million copies in all five continents of the world and translated in over 50 languages, Achebe blazed the literary trail in African literature and won a world-wide acknowledgment as twentieth century’s most widely acclaimed writer reflecting his familiar epithet back home as “eagle on an Iroko” and status as Father of modern African literature. Live is but once and yes we mourn, but we also rejoice for providence gave humanity a man like Achebe. Though he is dead, yet he lives on through his noble works.
Odi Moghalu, wrote from Los Angeles, United States.