By Uduma Kalu
It was a big shock to many when the news came that renowned novelist and ceberated author of Things Fall Apart, Prof. Chinua Achebe, was dead. This was so as the controversy generated by his autobiography, ‘There Was a Country’, was still fresh. The book had narrated Achebe’s experience in the Biafran war, accusing some principal actors of genocide against Igbo people.
Then, last December, Achebe was at his colloquium which hosted Lagos State governor, Mr. Raji Fashola, as keynote speaker. There was no hint that Achebe was ill. In fact, many of his admirers were waiting for him to respond to reactions triggered by claims in ‘There Was a Country’ . So when it was announced that the famous writer had passed on, tongues started wagging that, perhaps, the book’s controversy played a role. Theories about the cause of his death were many considering the fact no information indicated he was sick. Achebe was writing, lecturing, holding conferences, giving speeches, writing press statements, giving interviews. He was active, even after the 1990 accident that paralyzed him from waist down, and at 82.
But a chance meeting with Achebe’s first son, Ike, days after his father’s burial, explained the cause of his father’s death. Ike linked his father’s death to the car accident he had in 1990 – 23 years ago. Achebe was rushing to Enugu to catch a flight to Lagos when he had an accident near Awka Anambra State. The car somersaulted and fell on top of Achebe, causing him serious injuries. This was months after the University of Nigeria, Nsukka hosted an international 60th birthday conference in his honour. Prof. Edith Ihekweazu, convener of the confab, also died the same year in an auto crash on her way back to Nsukka. It was a shocking experience to literary observers following the two accidents.
While Edith, a German married to a Nigerian, died in her accident, doctors gave Achebe no chance of survival. When he eventually survived, doctors now said his days were numbered. All these happened when he had no grand children. “But Achebe lived 23 more years”, Ike said.
In between the years, the celebrated author had about six grand children. He published several books, he kept working even till he died this year.
The son said Achebe’s was a very private family man, and so many people outside the family did not know the extent the accident affected his father’s health.
Even though he was treated after the accident, Ike said his father had internal injuries which kept bringing problems, coupled with the fact that he was paralyzed. The family, he said, was always with him. For many in the family, his death was not a shock but it would be for those not close to his father, he pointed out. But one thing he admired about his father was his courage. The father, Ike said, did not allow his accident to affect his work.
The poet vs the emperor – There Was a Country furore
On the controversy which There Was a Country generated, the son said it did not give his father any headache. His father, he said, would write a book and said it was for the readers to deal with. “When he wrote something, he would push it out. He would not go back to it. The book will be on its own. This was the case with The Trouble With Nigeria and when Awolowo died and the statement he made. He had just left the country. When he came back, after the burial, he wrote his comments. And now his autobiography,” Ike said. His father had nothing personal against any of those named, he went on. “He was only pained that millions of children died because of the actions of some people. My father would say that it was the job of the writer (the poet) to give the emperor headache.
It was not the job of the poet to dine with the emperor. My father called it the poet versus the emperor. The poet, according to my father, must constantly give the emperor headache, not to give prescriptions. My father said the leadership must end the carnage and bloodshed in the country, that those who led the Biafran killings must be made accountable. And there are models all over the world on how this can be done”.
Igbo culture, Christianity in Achebe’s burial
Ike said there was no controversy as reported concerning Ogidi customs and the burial of Achebe. He said his father was a Christian. Though he was not regular in the Church, his father always prayed before any meal. His father was strictly a Christian under a catechist father. Achebe, he went on, was very receptive of Christianity until he went to the university and began to question certain things. “If a thorough reading of Things Fall Apart was done, it would be seen that the rhythm and language of the Bible had a great influence on him and it shows in the novel. My father said Africans should not throw away their own culture as there was so much in it. The new religion, telling the people the evils in their own religion without telling them the evils in its own, my father believed, should be viewed with suspicion. Many people thought because my father wrote movingly about African culture, he would be buried in the Omenana (cultural) way. My father respected the ancestors, no doubt.
The ancestors, my father said, gave the new generation everything, including language, dresses, proverbs, houses, medicine, sports. So, Africans should not throw their culture away. Yes, it had its bad sides too, like killing of twins, killing of Ikemefuna and maltreatment of women. But that was not enough reason to throw away the culture”, Ike said about his father whom he constantly called Ugo n’abo- two eagles, Achebe’s title. In Igbo, it is said that it is difficult to see one eagle, let alone two at the same time. That was Achebe’s title- two eagles that appeared at once. Achebe was a titled chief of Ogidi.
However, it will be difficult to say Achebe had a purely Christian burial because he also had an Igbo cultural burial. While the Church had its burial own beamed to the world, the Ogidi cultural burial, though announced in the burial programmes, was not publicised as the Christian’s. But this is the most significant part of the burial. While the Church said Achebe was going to heaven, the Igbo cultural burial was to ensure that the writer took his rightful place among his ancestors.
“There is nothing mysterious about how my father lived”, Ike said. “Many people wanted to see Omenala (culture) everywhere. But that wasn’t his whole life story. His life story was more complex than that. He grew up on the Bible. If the language of Things Fall Apart is studied, you will see that those rhythms are Biblical in the way the sentences are constructed—the clarity. I think that’s important. That was how my grand father trained him. The rhythms— the short sentences. I also know that he was a family man. He was not a regular Church goer. But he used to go to Church, of course. He would not eat without praying.
And in Jesus’ name. It was important to him that Africans don’t lose their way wholeheartedly. Because some of the consequences of that type of behaviour is self-denigration, losing confidence. He was comfortable with the English language and with the Igbo language, as well as praying before his food and honouring his ancestors. Honouring them through his writing, or just honouring them because of their contributions. As a matter of fact, everything we have in Igbo culture came from the ancestors. There is nothing you and I added … We tried but we created little. There is nothing you and I have done that we did not inherit from the ancestors. Language, roots and leaves, palm wine, how to traditionally build a house, they taught us…everything. So, let’s not forget that. So, these are things he was saying. And you have to balance. He won’t do that for you. He will also tell you that education was important. Western education, but don’t go and read all the books in western canon as though… because that’s what he was doing until he realised that, ‘these people are denigrating me”.
Ike said titled Igbo men used to be buried in the night. But that was ancient Igbo and for those who largely practised Omenana (culture), unlike his father who had a Christian background. Even, he said, there was the Ikwa ozu”, Igbo traditional burial which took place immediately after his father’s interment, on 24 and 25 May.
Among the Igbo, it is believed that without the “Ikwa ozu”, which means “celebrating the dead”, Achebe would have been forbidden from taking his rightful place among his ancestors. It is believed that no matter how accomplished he was in life, the literary icon would not be accorded an iota of respect in the next world. There was therefore a harmony between the two cultures.
Clark, Soyinka boycotting of burial
The conspicuous absence of two of Nigeria’s literary giants, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka and notable poet and playwright John Pepper Clark, sent literary and other social groups abuzz. Was it a boycott? Were they not invited by the Achebe transition committee? Did the duo just ignore the funeral?
Even Culture Minister Edem Duke was not there. He neither sent a word nor a representative to the ceremonies as Soyinka and Clark, some writers who are members of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) noted.
The anxiety among writers and others was amplified by the fact that moments after the literary giant died, the duo of Soyinka and Clark released a press statement, about their quartet: Christopher Okigbo, who died in the Biafra war, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and John Pepper Clark.
Later, in an interview, days to Achebe’s burial, Soyinka explained the statement, that “… JP and I were however paying a tribute to a colleague within a rather ‘closed circle of interaction’, of which these others (Mabel Segun, Flora Nwapa, Cyprian Ekwensi, etc] were not members”.
With this sort of a statement, the duo’s absence raised a lot of questions. Some people asked whether the duo were invited. But some writers said formal or no formal invitation, comrades’ commitment to one another cannot be tampered by mere courtesy.
Reports said Clark was invited by the committee to write a tribute for Achebe at the Monday symposium in Abuja. But the poet was quoted as saying the invitation came 72 hours to the event and so he could not write it. Clark did not reply to a text sent to him by Sunday Vanguard on the claim.
On Soyinka, while a member of the committee said the Nobel Laureate was not invited and he could not explain whether it was done informally, Chairman of the committee, Prof. Uzodinma Nwala said the Nobel Laureate was invited. Nwala, who spoke on phone, added that Soyinka was invited formally and informally. In fact, Ike, Achebe’s son, reportedly, first called him on that. Nwala followed suit, and sent him a mail inviting him to the funeral.
But Soyinka did not attend. In fact, days to the week-long funeral, Soyinka gave an interview which some people saw in bad taste, among which was that Achebe should not have written There Was a Country, and that he was not the father of African literature, a tag even Achebe shrugged off.
However, a source close to the transition committee said Soyinka’s absence was not a surprise as both were not friends. The source said the release about a quartet was a just a public relations stunt and that Achebe and Clark also were not close friends. “Yes, there could be some invitations but that did not mean the trio were friends”. The source wondered why people thought Soyinka and Achebe were friends, their being fellow writers, from same university and Biafran connection among others notwithstanding.
A writer and scholar, Prof. Obi Iwuanyanwu, who lives in US, said,” All these talks about a pioneer quartet is totally made up and a fiction of a hyperactive imagination. It doesn’t exist; it never existed. And in spite of all side shows, Achebe’s funeral has come and gone. Smaller masquerades always angle for a ray of sunshine when the big masquerade is at the village square. But literature is about eternal conversation, even when we have little to talk about. So, your question is valid. The speculations that follow it are likewise valid.”