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Achebe: The novelist as class teacher

THE University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Literature 301 (African Fiction) Class was weeks late in starting for the 1980/81 academic year. On the fourth week, the students had gathered as usual even before it was time for the class.

Then five minutes after the time, a large ash-coloured Mercury Monarch car drove in and parked beside the class. A man of middle height in a brown safari suit and with a deeply creased and very serious face but erect body walked into the class.

He greeted the class and went straight to perch at the edge of the table, disdaining the chair – and waited for the hum his entry had elicited to die down. It didn’t. Two minutes later he cleared his throat, went to the black board and began to write even as he spoke: “My name is…” and the class roared: C-H-I-N-U-A   A-C-H-E-B-E!!!.

He shook his head ever so slightly, like somebody who had gotten used to such antics, nay adulation, and reminded the class that other students were also taking lectures in other sections of the Ansah Building which the English Department shared with Economics.  Then he apologised for having not been in the country for almost a month, making the students to lose several lectures. He explained that such international engagements were making more demands on his time and he had decided to do something about his having to struggle to meet up with his lectures. With that he had hinted us that that we would be his last class in Nigeria … but that master of understatement did not make it that clear then.

He asked if we had all bought the long list of recommended text books, and he added another long list; the class asked if we could ever have the time to treat all of them. No, he spoke ever so softly, so softly that you sometimes had to strive to hear him, saying that our studies would neither begin nor end in the class room. “You have to go beyond the official list of books. The world is your stage,” he announced, “reach out and take it. Tackle it, subdue it. I’m just your guide. Soon, you’ll forget me and open your wings wide and fly”. His words were not rushing out; instead, he almost counted his words as he released them slowly as though he deliberately weighed each word before letting it pass through his lips.

Achebe was ever patient; never shouting at any student; not even when they gave the worst of answers. Instead, he would say: “Why not look at it this way”?

There was a particular student, Tony Ejiochi, who loved to antagonise Achebe, telling him often that he rated Cyprian Ekewnsi to be Africa’s best. Achebe thanked him for the stance, especially for his courage but warned him that his style of writing, filling the entire essays with “phantasmagoria” and such high-faluting words just to make an impression, would not help him in making the world to appreciate Ekwensi the more. “I wonder if Ekwensi ever used the word phantasmagoria in any of his books,” concluded Achebe. From that day, “Phantasmagoria” took over the student’s name. If I see him tomorrow, I’ll still call him “Phantasmagoria”.

Then one day, Achebe flared up. He had asked the class to read a certain section of the Senegalese diplomat, Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s  The Ambiguous Adventure as preparation for the next class discussion. The class went on smoothly until somebody asked Achebe the meaning of the word “Occident” (from Kane’s phrase: “The morning of the Occident in Africa was couched in crimson for those who landed on our shores were White and mad”.  Achebe went back to his seat, (the table’s edge really) then asked the student to stand up, and then roared: “What is your dictionary for? This is terrible (his favourite word for describing a bad situation). You are not ready for the task at hand if by now you have not fallen in love with your dictionary.  Ngugi began writing while still a student”.

From there began the class’ great love affair with Ngugi Wa  Thiong’o . Before Achebe would teach any book, he would spend hours on the novelist, his society, the time in which the novelist wrote and lastly, he would say, “when I met him”. It was clear from the time he spent on the East African society that he held great score with the Mau Mau uprising, especially with its organisation. The result was that Ngugi became the class’ favourite author. Every discussion session was filled with Ngugi and East Africa plus Meja Nwangi’s Carcass for Hounds; it was clear Achebe greatly admired “Gen” Dedan Kimathi. Once he admonished the class: You are asking too many questions about Ngugi, I may need to get him for you to answer the questions himself. The class went delirious! But we took it as a joke – until Ngugi arrived!

Understandably, he made us take great interest too in South-African literature. From the 1980/81 session, the question will always resonate whenever our former class mates gather: “Is we not people?” That came from Alex LaGuma’s  A Walk In The Night. To Achebe, that was all that matters: The humanity of the African which has been denied by others; of course to us the rotten English of that unschooled Black ghetto dweller on the run from the apartheid policemen made the question more memorable!  Then talking about when he met South-Africa’s Nadine Gordimer, he chuckled and said she was crying because the “young hot heads” had refused to allow her to attend a conference of African authors in Kenya.  Achebe took her into the hall and convinced the others that the lady had been writing against the apartheid system and she lived in Africa. “We need to swallow up all the Whites in South Africa because from the Cape to Cairo belongs to us by divine right, and know that when South Africa becomes free, some Whites will elect to remain there,” he argued. Her tears dried up immediately. Gordimer  would later win the Nobel Prize!

Achebe opened our eyes to the African world. He loved to quote this passage from the Ambiguous Adventure: “Instead of picking and choosing what to accept from the West and what to reject, Africa is a-quiver with courteousness, metamorphosing in a space of one generation under this new egotism which the West is scattering abroad”.

To him, arts must be in the service of the society and that should continue until we could take for granted what the West now takes for granted (a push-button life of leisure); until then, “Arts for Arts Sake” would remain a “deodorized dog shit” to quote his exact words.

As though Achebe was keeping his house in order before embracing more global engagements, he packed much into the 1980/81 session. Thus he organized the Okochi (dry season in Igbo language) Festival to which he invited story tellers from the villages, in an attempt to make the university recognize the real oral literature. The vernacular recitals took place during the full moon and in the open-air Princess Alexandra Building – its roof was destroyed by bombs during the 1967-1970 Nigerian Civil War and the university decided to keep it that way was as a war relic.

Achebe later told me in Upstate New York, USA, over a decade later that the final duty he did before leaving Nigeria was to organize the Association of Nigerian Authors in 1981. Emeka Atamah and I, served as the only members of the conference’s secretariat.  Its special guest was, yes, Ngigi. For Ngugi’s address as a Special Guest of Honour, the hall was jam-packed. I remember the last question he answered: “in what way should established writers help aspiring ones”? He said in every way possible; that he was helped too by one Nigerian who helped in getting a manuscript to his publishers. Then Ngugi looked up before announcing that the novelist was Achebe and the manuscript became “Weep Not Child”. As the clapping died down, he concluded: “So I must pay homage to my literary father”. And he went to shake Achebe’s outstretched hands.

So, was Ngigi his favourite African novelist? He shook his head left and right and left again when I asked him that question in the US, where he lived and died after the 1990 car accident that rendered him wheel-chair bound. He said that if there was a book he never got tired of reading, it was Kane’s “Ambiguous Adventure”. Why? He said the book was a philosophical dialogue between Africa and the West. “Look Tony, it is there in the book that many Africans, often the brightest and the best that we send to the West to understand the Western ways and so help us in the fight for the world’s resources are often conquered by the ‘itinerary itself’. It is written there that many of such people never really return to Africa and end up neither whites nor blacks but hybrids filled with shame”.  “Tony”, he continued, “many now in the US, will never return to Africa, neither will their children. Who can quantify that lose to Africa?”.

Achebe himself never returned, he died there … but did he bother about such things? On my second visit to him at Bard College, Annandale on Hudson, Upstate New York, he told me that he was still in a hospital bed in London (after his 1990 car accident) thinking how he would have to remodel his house in Ogidi, South-East Nigeria so that he would be able to function at all there, when a visitor was ushered in. He was the President of an American College. He asked if Achebe would be ready to move in as part of the faculty once he was ready to leave the hospital. Achebe said yes for he did not want the incapacitation to end his productive life. On getting to the US, the purpose built (for him) “Achebe House” was ready, over-looking the Catskill Mountain that reminded one of the Nsukka hills, beside Achebe’s former University of Nigeria, Nsukka.  He told me he could use his wheel chair to navigate all through the house and the entire campus. But would the situation be the same in Nigeria? He answered the question in an Acheberesque way: “Nigeria is a sorry story”. I did not fail to note the understatement once again.

One question many have asked is if Achebe was worried that he never won a Nobel Prize in Literature. I asked him that question and he said, understatedly once again, “I do not lose sleep over that.”

For a while I feared that Achebe could actually reject the prize to poke his nose against the West as he twice rejected national awards from Nigeria –for failure of leadership. But now, such would ever remain part of the great unknowns of history; why he was not thought fit for the prize and if he would have accepted it. Yet it remains a fact that in 1986, African writers were invited for a seminar in Sweden of all places. Achebe not only turned it down, he published an article saying that the place to discuss African literature was in Africa or a foreign place where African literature was taken seriously. Chinweizu, (of the “West and the Rest of Us” book fame) the polyvalent scholar who studied Maths and Philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology before taking a PhD in History and branching off into American Economy and writing literary criticism books, etc, then alerted the world that Achebe had by that act written himself  out of the Nobel Prize.  That year, an African, a Nigerian, Wole Soyinka, became a Nobel laureate.

Yes, could he have lived only on his earnings from his novels? He said an emphatic yes to that. Did critics bother him? No, he replied “they almost all say nice things about me – and then you have to realize that there are some lunatics out there. You have to learn to notice the serious, weigh what they have to say for no one is perfect. But some are just lunatics.”

As Achebe’s former student, the question I have faced the most is this: “how did he teach his books?” My unvarying answer has been this: “I wish I knew”. But Achebe never taught his books. Prof. Emmanuel Obiechina taught my class “Things Fall Apart”, “Arrow of God”, etc. But sitting with Achebe years later in the US, he answered my questions easily: “Things Fall Apart” did not render an idealized picture of the Igbo of that era. You could almost say that it was a harsh, even wicked, society. But, and he smiled, as you supplied the rest: we were not just savages and the white man, acting on God’s behalf came to save us – which he had stated before as one of his reasons for writing “Things Fall Apart”. The truth must lie somewhere in between, but until the lion begins to tell its own stories, the story will always be told by the hunter. And Achebe led a gigantic eruption of stories from the African point of view.

Mr. TONY ELUEMUNOR, a commentator on national issues, wrote from Lagos.


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