Achebe: There Was a Countryman

In Igbo-land of old, the death of a great man – say, a titled man – was not announced until some necessary rites were performed. That’s what happened when old man Ezeudu, one of the characters in Things Fall Apart, kicked the bucket; the formal announcement was later made by the village gong (ekwe).

But, within minutes of the novel’s author’s demise on March 21, the news spread from one end of the earth to the other via social media, cell phone, radio and television. How times have changed! The contrast highlights the wide difference between the old world inhabited by Ezeudu in the 19th century and the new world the author has just left behind.

Now it’s official: the father and grandfather of modern African literature, Chinualumogu Albert Achebe, has joined his ancestors. He transited from Boston, the United States, where he had lived since 1990 for health reasons. Certainly, his remains will be returned to the land of his birth, Ogidi in Anambra State, anytime soon.

In the 82+ years of his life, Professor Achebe lived for his people and the world. An all-round achiever, he was to study Medicine at the University College, Ibadan. After a year, he changed course and studied English, History and Theology in the same institution. He graduated in 1952 and, by 1956, at age 26, he had started writing his first novel, Things Fall Apart, that remains the best book ever written by an African. He was inspired to write his most famous book by another book, Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad who described Africans as people without a history.

Things Fall Apart, which tells the story of Igbo people from pre-colonial times to the period the white man came, is so real that many Africans have associated their grandfather or great-grandfather with Okonkwo, the main character. After Things Fall Apart (published 1958), Achebe followed with No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964) and A Man of the People (1966). There is a collection of poems entitled Beware Soul Brother; another is “a novel for boys”, Chike and the River. Don’t Let Him Die is a tribute to his late friend and contemporary poet, Christopher Okigbo.

There seemed to have been a lull – a period he published several academic and non-academic papers in both local and international journals – until 1987 when he came out with another novel, Anthills of the Savannah.

It is a herculean task to list all of Achebe’s books and papers or his statements in several interviews with both local and foreign media, but what is certain is that the great writer never lost touch with his beloved Nigeria. Just as he played the prophet in A Man of the People (predicting the coup and counter-coup of 1966), he accurately diagnosed the ills of his country in The Trouble with Nigeria (1983). His opening sentence in that small but impactful book has been quoted by many a commentator: “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.”

The stint he had in politics was when he joined the People’s Redemption Party (PRP) in the Second Republic and was later selected as deputy national chairman of the party after its founder Aminu Kano’s death in 1983.

The University of Nigeria celebrated the “Eagle on Iroko” on his 60th birthday, in 1990. Shortly after, Achebe was involved in an auto crash that nearly claimed his life. He was rushed to the United States where he stayed back to manage a spinal cord injury that left him in a wheel chair. He did visit Nigeria on a few occasions thereafter – including in 1999 or thereabouts and later when he presented the “Aka Ikenga” lecture.

In 2004 and 2011, he rejected the national honours award on the grounds that Nigeria was not being run well. His last book, There Was a Country, is his personal history of Biafra. Since its publication a few months ago, it has caused disquiet in some quarters especially among the Yoruba who want nobody to see or say any evil about the late Obafemi Awolowo, even if it’s the truth.

What nobody doubted, however, was that Achebe was the king of African literature, a man who loved his people and always pointed them to the right direction. He was both the Eagle and the Iroko. He was a man of the people, but far apart from Odili Samalu, the hero in A Man of the People.

Note: Achebe (born Nov. 16, 1930) died on March 21, 2013, and was buried in his hometown Ogidi (Anambra State, Nigeria) on May 23, 2013. Eyeway editor Aniebo Nwamu paid him a tribute first published in the Sunday column of LEADERSHIP, May 19, 2013. You can read it here.


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