By NGUGI WA THIONG’O
I first met Chinua Achebe in 1961 at Makerere, Kampala. His novel, Things Fall Apart, had come out two years before. I was then a second year student, the author of just one story, Mugumo, published in Penpoint, the literary magazine of the English Department. At my request, he looked at the story and made some encouraging remarks.
My next encounter was more dramatic, on my part at least, and would affect my life and literary career profoundly. It was at the now famous 1962 conference of writers of English expression.
Achebe was among a long line of literary luminaries that included Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark, Eski’a Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi and Bloke Modisane. The East African contingent consisted of Grace Ogot, Jonathan Kariara, John Nagenda and I.
My invitation was on the strength of my short stories published in Penpoint and in Transition.
But what most attracted me was not my being invited there as ‘writer’ but the fact that I would be able to show Achebe the manuscript of my second novel, what would later become Weep Not, Child. It was very generous of him to agree to look at it because, as I would learn later, he was working on his novel, Arrow of God. Because of that and his involvement in the conference, he could not read the whole manuscript, but he read enough to give some useful suggestions.
More important, he talked about it to his publisher, William Heinemann, represented at the conference by June Milne, who expressed an interest in the work. Weep Not, Child would later be published by Heinemann and the paperback by Heinemann Education Publishers, the fourth in the now famous African Writers series of which Achebe was the Editorial Adviser.
I was working with the Nation newspapers when Weep Not, Child came out. It was April 1964, and Kenya was proud to have its first modern novel in English by a Kenyan African. Or so I thought, for the novel was well published in the Kenyan newspapers, the Sunday Nation even carrying my interview by de Villiers, one of its senior features writers.
Shaking hands with a hero
I assumed that every educated Kenyan would have heard about the novel. I was woken to reality when I entered a club, the most frequented by the new African elite at the time, who all greeted me as their Kenyan author of Things Fall Apart.
Years later, at Achebe’s 70th birthday celebrations at BardCollege attended by Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka among others, I told this story of how Achebe’s name had haunted my life. When Soyinka’s turn to speak came, he said I had taken the story from his mouth: He had been similarly mistaken for Achebe.
The fact is Achebe became synonymous with the Heinemann African Writers Series and African writing as a whole. There’s hardly any African writer of my generation who has not been mistaken for Achebe.
I have had a few of such encounters. The last such was in 2010 at the JomoKenyattaAirport. Mukoma, the author of Nairobi Heat, and I had been invited for the Kwani? festival whose theme was inter-generational dialogue. As he and I walked towards the immigration desk, a man came towards me. His hands were literally trembling as he identified himself as a professor of literature from Zambia.
“Excuse me Mr Achebe, somebody pointed you out to me. I have long wanted to meet you.”
“No, no I am not the one,” I said, “but here is Mr Achebe,” I added pointing at my son.
I thought the obvious youth of my son would tell him that I was being facetious. But no, our professor grabbed Mukoma’s hands grateful that he had at last shaken hands with his hero.
The case of mistaken identity as late as 2010 shows how Achebe had become a mythical figure, and rightly so. He was the single most important figure in the development of modern African literature as writer, editor and quite simply a human being.
His novel, Things Fall Apart, the most widely read novel in the history of African literature since its publication in 1958 became an inspiring model. As the general editor of the Heinemann African Writers Series, he had a hand in the emergence of many other writers and their publication.
As a person, he embodied wisdom that comes from a commitment to the middle way between extremes and, of course, courage in the face of personal tragedy!
Achebe bestrides generations and geographies
Every country in Africa claims him as their own. Some sayings in his novels are quoted frequently as proverbs that contain universal wisdom. His passing marks the beginning of the end of an epoch.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a creative writer and distinguished professor of Comparative Literature and English at the University of California, Irvine.