The Achebes without their patriarch in US

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By Wale Okediran

Providence Station, Rhode Island. I am sitting in the arrival hall of this very busy train station on this warm October afternoon amidst the clutter of my baggage of clothes, books and a roll up banner of ARIK AIR, the sponsor of the second leg of my ‘US COAST TO COAST READING TOUR’.

On the tracks outside, the AMTRACK Train that had brought me from Platform 5, South Station in Boston, Massachusetts gave a long piercing horn as it continued on its journey to its next destination in the New England region of the US. Tired and hungry but eminently  satisfied with my last reading at  Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, I ambled over to the station’s restaurant for a cup of coffee to pep up my energy for my next reading in just about an hour’s time.

Moments later, my friend and the winner of the 2009 Caine Prize for African Writing, E C Osondu, an Associate Professor of English at the Providence College, arrived to pick me up.  And as EC later drove me into town, I quickly fell in love with the sedate and lovely university town, the capital of Rhode Island, the smallest state in the US.With a population of about 178,000, Providence is the biggest City in Rhode Island but about the third biggest in the whole of the New England area. It also has the reputation of being one of the first cities to be established in the US.  The city is followed by Warwick and Cranston in that order as the three biggest cities in Rhode Island.
EC and I had not seen for years and we quickly made up for lost time as we later discussed over breakfast in a nearby restaurant before my 2pm appointment in Providence College.

Providence College is a private, coeducational, Roman Catholicuniversitylocated about two miles west of downtown Providence, state’s capital city. With a current enrollment of 3,852 undergraduate students and 735 graduate students, the college specializes in academic programs in the liberal arts. It is the only college or university in North America administered by the Dominican Orderof friars.
The college is located on a gated 105 acres (0.42 km2) campus in the city’s Elmhurstneighbourhood atop Smith Hill, the highest point in the city of Providence.

Low student-teacher ratio
‘’The fees are high, as such, the low student to teacher ratio which allows for a high level quality of the products of the university, ‘’ EC later told me in his office at the ground floor of the university’s English Department.  ‘’You will be speaking with my English students in another 30 minutes time. They have already read excerpts from your novel, TENANTS OF THE HOUSE, as well as your short story, HOLY MICHAEL. They really enjoyed your works and are eagerly looking forward to seeing you”, EC  added.

And so it was that I had a very enjoyable one hour interactive session with the 20 students in Osondu’s English class. From their questions which centred on the issues of fake religion, corruption and politics as depicted in my works, it was obvious that the students were well groomed and had an excellent understanding of their studies. The only problem was my difficulty in understanding their ‘New England’ accent and I had to rely on EC’s assistance to smoothen the very lively session.

‘’ The university has booked you into the Biltmore Hotel for the night but, first, let me introduce you to my colleagues in the department before handing you over to Dr Chidi Achebe for the rest of the day”, E C told me as he later introduced me to the poet , Chard Deniord, as well as his Head of Department.  Osondu was also happy that I will be spending the rest of the day with the Achebes, a family he had come to greatly respect. ‘’I never had the opportunity of working with Prof Chinua Achebe but those who did, spoke highly of him”, EC remarked. ‘’Apart from his brilliant academic record, Achebe was also said to be a very hard working and likeable person to work with. He was said to be very frugal with his words, money and even food”.  EC told me of an incident when Mrs Achebe would have cooked a lot of food only for Prof Achebe to take just a little and passed the rest to some of his young associates who were working with him.

I spent the next half and hour on a quick tour of the university campus with its very beautiful landscape of green lawns, beautiful flowers and trees. Students could be seen hurrying for lecture while a class or two were being held under the shade of some trees. ‘’Over here, students have a lot of rights”, EC informed me. ‘’For example, they have the right to abandon a lecture if the Lecturer is more than 20 minutes late”, he added.

At exactly 4pm, Chidi, the charismatic medical doctor second son of the literary icon Chinua Achebe bounded up the stairs of Providence College’s English Department in a happy mood. Ebullient, witty and astonishingly humble, Chidi and I have had a long standing warm relationship beginning from the 2009 visit of Chinua Achebe to Nigeria  when, as the then President of the Association Of Nigerian Authors, I had led a group of writers to receive the association’s first President. Again, during the icon’s 2012 funeral ceremony, I had played a very active role as a member of the Burial Committee. After a warm embrace, Chidi apologised profusely for coming late to pick me and later went ahead to carry my luggage to his car which already had three car sitters in the back seat for ‘my three active boys’ as Chidi put it.

‘’We shall first of all go and see mummy in West Warwick before I take you home to sample Mimi’s cooking for dinner”, Chidi said as he headed the car towards West Warwick, for the approximately 45 minute- journey. And as he drove, Chidi kept thanking the Association of Nigerian Authors and me for the good support we gave the family during the burial of their father.  I used the opportunity of the trip to savour the beautiful and picturesque environment all around me. Mile after mile was well laid countryside with a scattering of cute and adorable buildings.
West Warwick, with a population of about 30,000, is about the 10th most populous city in Rhode Island.

‘Dad’s room’
Before long, we drove off the main road and up a long drive way into the front of a beautiful and modest chocolate brown villa. ‘’Welcome to our house”, Chidi said as he pointed to me a room in the upper floor. ‘’That was my dad’s room. That was where he usually passed time usually listening to the radio. From there he could see us as we drive up the drive way”, Chidi added.
Moments later, we were in a well furnished sitting room where Chidi asked me to wait while he fetched his mother. ‘’Hello Mummy, Dr Wale Okediran is here”, Chidi called.

Soon, I heard a cheery voice descending the stair case followed by quick smart footsteps. I soon came face to face with Prof. (Mrs) Christie Chinwe Achebe, looking homely and relaxed in her brownish blouse and trousers attire as a bright smile played on her face.
“Good evening, ma”, I greeted, glad to see her in such a happy and healthy condition. ‘’Am happy to see you again”, I added as I gave a low respectful bow.

The afternoon’s receding sun revealed a face that, despite the demise of her soul mate just the year before, she still had a youthful and happy shine. Again, just like Chidi , Mrs Achebe was grateful for the role played by the Association of Nigerian Authors during her husband’s funeral ceremony. She equally thanked me for my own contributions as well as for the visit.

Python skin handbag
Back in Nigeria while preparing for my trip, I had reserved the most expensive and by my own judgement, the most elegant of the gifts I brought to the US for Mrs Achebe. However, as I presented the cute python skin handbag to her, Mrs Achebe suddenly dropped a bombshell; ‘’where I come from in Anambra State, the python is revered and killing it is an abomination’”.

For some seconds, I felt devastated and guilty as if I was an accomplice to murder. However, my hostess, ever so graceful took the whole incident very light heartedly and went on to narrate certain incidents that showed how the python is held in high esteem in certain parts of Anambra State.

It is on record that despite the incursion of Christianity and Islam, old traditions hold sway in some communities in Africa as locals still revere some creatures and dare not harm them. As Mrs Achebe put it, “I grew up to know that our people revere the python. I also know that it is free to come into our homes and leave at will. But if you do not want it to stay at that moment, it is your duty to gently take it away, but not to kill it. “

‘Burial rites’
It is said that if an indigene of any part of Anambra or Imo State where the python is revered accidentally kills a python, such a person will have to perform the burial rites as if the dead python was a human being. Other communities that revere pythons are Abagana, Agulu, Ihiala, Nri, Ogidi, and other towns in Idemili, and neighbouring communities in Imo State like Oguta, Mgbidi, Njaba among others.

‘Mummy driving’
The Professor of Humanities, who had stopped working for about a year before her husband’s demise in order to look after him, was already back on her feet judging from her relaxed and suave mien.

‘’Mummy is already driving herself and goes for shopping and visits in the neighbourhood”, Chidi observed.
I wanted a photograph with her but she declined in deference to tradition which does not allow her to be photographed until a year after her husband’s death. She spoke glowingly of her late husband, especially his generosity, devotion to scholarship and family values.

The lively discussion went on and on until we discovered that the day had gone. Twilight was setting at 6 pm when Chidi and I departed West Warwick for his house in Framingham. Located in Eastern Massachusetts, Framingham with a population of 68,318 and is about 32 km (20 miles) West of Boston midway between Boston and Worcester.
As he drove, Chidi regaled me with his father’s legacy of hard work, simplicity and humility. ‘’He rarely spent on himself, preferring to help others when they needed help”, he said.
“Daddy was ready to spend any amount on education since he was not too much impressed by material things”, Chidi added.

According to the medical doctor who is now into Health Care Management, even though not a Democrat, he is in support of President Obama’s healthcare package, Obamacare, despite its shortcomings. ‘’Even though the package may increase doctors’ workload and decrease their income, it is still a laudable program which has my support”, he added.
Chidi also refreshed my knowledge about the New England region which is located in the north-east corner of the US and made up of the six states of Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut.

Ivy League
“Half of the Ivy League Universities are in New-England: Harvard University (Massachusetts), Yale University (Connecticut), Dartmouth College (New Hampshire) and Brown University (Rhode Island). The other four are in the neighbouring states of New York – Columbia University in New York City, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York; Princeton University in New Jersey and the University of Pennsylvania (UPENN) in Pennsylvania.”The term ‘Ivy League’, which was originally a collegiate athletic conference, is now a connotation for academic excellence, selectivity in admissions and social elitism.

It was getting late when we finally arrived in Chidi’s house in Framingham, a town which, according to Chidi, is divided into the black and white districts by the railway line. As Chidi put it, ‘’When my wife and I moved into the predominantly white neighbourhood  about six years ago, the reception was not very good. However, with time, our neighbours, having observed us closely and liked what they saw, quickly warmed to us.”

On hand to receive me to Chidi’s home were his wife Mimi who is also a medical doctor as well as their three sons. Even though they appeared shy, I could notice the curiosity on the faces of the boys as they inspected me from afar.  Chidi and I continued our discussions on every conceivable subject under the earth in his tastefully furnished sitting room as Mimi got dinner ready.

As we tackled dinner minutes later, Chidi was effusive with compliments for his wife whom he thanked for efficiently combining her professional work very efficiently with the home front. ‘’You know how difficult it is to bring up three boisterous boys and still work in a very challenging profession such as medicine”, Chidi added. By then it was very late and the Achebe’s suggested I pass the night with them instead of going back all the way to Providence. I was touched by the couple’s kind offer but was at the same time worried about the implications of abandoning the hotel accommodation already made by the Providence College authorities, especially knowing how much efforts my friend E C Osondu had made towards this. At the same time, the thought of Chidi having to drive the approximately one hour- distance to Providence and another one hour back to Framingham so late at that hour of the day was not too pleasant to me.
“That’s not a problem”, was Chidi’s response when I expressed my discomfort at putting him back on the road so late at night.

And so it was that Chidi and I were soon back on the road to Providence, arriving in the heart of downtown Providence where my hotel, The Providence Biltmore, was located at about 9pm. We exchanged another quick hug before Chidi nosed the car back towards Framingham.

Back in the hotel’s room 106, I decided to delay going to bed until Chidi had got back home, so I spent the time to recap my manager’s instructions for the next leg of my trip. ‘’Take the 4.30pm bus to Kennedy Plaza to catch the 6.10pm Greyhound Bus from Providence to New York’s Manhattan Garage then, get a cab to your hotel in Brooklyn. Your next reading in New York will be at The Buka Restaurant, 946 Fulton Street, Brooklyn at 7pm”. After another half an hour watching the TV, I called Chidi and was glad to hear that he was home safe and dry. But as I prepared to sleep, the story of the revered python came back to me. For a moment, I was worried in case the snake from which the handbag was made came back to haunt me in my sleep. ‘’At least, I wasn’t the one that killed it”, I consoled myself as I turned off the light for a well deserved rest.

*Okediran, a writer, was a member of the House of Representatives.

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