By Obi Nwakanma
There is the Igbo story of the wood pecker who proclaimed without doubt that he would honour his father in death by pecking down the great Iroko tree. But the day came when his father died, and the woodpecker suddenly grew a boil on its beak. I feel like the woodpecker. Chinua Achebe’s death last week left me tongue tied.
Not because I thought he would not die; I was in fact at the last Achebe Colloquium at Brown last November, and I felt in the chill of the New England winter, a slight premonition. It is just that men like Achebe transcend death.
They seem immortal and timeless. They occupy a zone of reality that is between myth and legend. So, the announcement of his death felt like a great pillar had shifted underneath the earth and nothing feels the same or is likely to stay in the same familiar balance. An era had come truly to a close.
Eustace Palmer, the Sierra-Leonean critic of African Literature said so much, that Achebe’s passing is such an earth-shattering event that years from now it would be asked, “where were you when the great Achebe died?” We were at the Marriot Hotel in Charleston, South Carolina, at the annual conference of the African Literature Association (ALA) when the news came. A great pall of silence had descended, then began the celebration of a great and magnificent life.
Achebe chose a symbolic moment to pass: the gathering of the writers and scholars of the literature of the African world in a city which itself has significance in the transatlantic movement of Africans through the middle passage. Chinua Achebe magnified the African story in the 20th century.
The significance might now slightly be lost to those who now regard African literature as given, but before Chinua Achebe, there was no African literature; not because Africans were not writing; not because there was no tradition of imaginative expression in Africa by Africans; it is simply because, in the words of the great Nigerian critic, F. Abiola Irele, Chinua Achebe’s writing, for the first time provided an “image of Africa [that] was quite unprecedented in literature.”
After Achebe, Africa was no longer that “area of darkness” denuded of human consciousness. Achebe restored its coherent institutional fabric and its “universe of meaning and values.” To put it quite simply, Chinua Achebe’s importance is that he restored the dignity and humanity of the African, pillaged for over five hundred years in antinomic imagery and stories circulated across the world without the challenge of a counter narrative. It was a historic task and only a man of Achebe’s genius and powerful introspection could achieve it. He wrote with crystalline power and authority.
I read Arrow of God, the first of the Achebe novels I encountered, as a nine-year old in 1975. I was haunted by the story. The powerful story of this priest who tried to wrestle with Time in the name of his god, and was found in the end with his mind turned.
It is true that many critics have compared Achebe with another of his creations, the thoughtful and introspective Obierika, the thinking man; Okonkwo’s alter-ego in Things Fall Apart, but Achebe had reminded me more of the high priest Ezulu, equally thoughtful and introspective, committed and principled, with a capable and philosophical mind, and endowed with a quiet, dignified and stubborn will.
For instance, while his friend, the poet Okigbo, lived and wrote with the urgency of a meteorite; a star in the ascent, much like Obika, Ezulu’s son, Achebe wrote with the calm and measure of deliberate truth, even in the face of personal tragedy. Chinua Achebe arrived this world as the stars aligned; no wonder therefore his parents named him Chinualumuogu.
There is much to a name and his “Chi” indeed fought for him. Born on November 16, 1930, Chinua Achebe shared the same birthday with Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, another lighted torch of that century. C. C. Momah, former Librarian of the United Nations and Achebe’s best friend and classmate from the Government College Umuahia to the University College Ibadan has written about how the famous school master, Mr. Okongwu, Dr. Chu S. Okongwu’s father, then headmaster at the St. Michael’s school in Aba in the 1940s had warned them of a boy at Ogidi who “would make the rain that will beat” them in the competitive entrance into the Government College Umuahia in 1943.
It was there they all met in January 1944, at the Government College Umuahia – “Eton of the East” – where Achebe indeed showed his mettle. Unlike Okigbo or Momah at Umuahia, he was no athlete; I even have a picture of V.C. Ike as cricket scorer for Umuahia with Wole Soyinka scoring for Ibadan on the opposite side in 1948, but Achebe took swimmingly to academics.
He made by all accounts, the best results in the Cambridge exam and the entrance to the new University College Ibadan in 1948, where he arrived to study medicine, but soon found himself more interested in the Humanities from which he took his degree in 1954. It is the happiest of accidents for African literature because from Ibadan to life in broadcasting at the Nigerian Broadcasting Service, and to the publication of Things Fall Apart in 1958, we have the seeds of the Achebean imagination.
Chinua Achebe’s life is by now too well known and needs no easy rehash. So, let me say this appropriately to sum its significance, for it was a magnificent life: Chinua Achebe’s life was a miracle. It was a miracle of love and a miracle of endeavor. He was a well-loved man, at both the public and the private spheres. After his accident in 1990, when he became paralyzed from the waist, his true love, his wife Christie, gave up her own life to care for her love.
The image of Christie Achebe pushing Chinua Achebe everywhere on a wheel chair was shorn of tragedy, but became the picture of true and perfect love. Of endeavor, no sturdier shoulder has borne the weight more easily of the story of a world. On Achebe’s shoulder lay the weight of the African story in the modern era – an era that will henceforth be known as “the age of Achebe.”
He was the greatest philosopher of his age in Africa, and in his death has ascended the pantheon of the world’s greatest thinkers of any age. Chinualumuogu: the gods spoke through him.