Achebe? The man the world adored
A journalist, Dare Oluwaseun, met the late Chinua Achebe during a programme to mark the 50th anniversary of Things Fall Apart at the Bard College, New York in 2008. In this piece, he recounts the encounter, which gives an insight into why the world will never forget this son of Ogidiland.
His entrance that night was not without some excitement. He was given a standing ovation as he was wheeled into the hall. He was dressed in what had become his trademark uniform: a dark suit, white round neck shirt and a black beret that fit on his head like that of Boys? Scout. He cut the picture of a compassionate grandfather.
When he began to read an excerpt from Things Fall Apart (TFA), a pin drop silence descended on the room. The late Chinua Achebe?s voice was big and a clear contradiction of his outward appearance. He read slowly at first. As the audience began to enjoy the reading, the only sound that could be heard was that of the rustling of paper generated from people following from their own copies of the novel.
At the time, he was a resident professor of Languages and Literature at the Bard College, New York. Before that event, he had attended over 40 interviews and reviews celebrating the 50th anniversary of Things Fall Apart (1958). The book is held in high esteem in many countries and has been translated into over 50 languages, sold over 20 million copies and is a standard reading book for high school and college students in the United States. It was, therefore, not surprising that the college, in addition to the several activities that had been organised to celebrate the novel?s anniversary, put together a panel discussion to analyse the great work. That was the occasion at which the late Achebe was reading.
The President of the college, Leon Botstein, was lavish in his praise of the late Achebe. Of course, he was the biggest name in the college, a name that put it on the world map and drew the attention of the world media to a hitherto unknown college in a sleepy backwood area of New York State.
?Professor Achebe has a deep concern for all human beings,? Botstein said in his introduction of the late Achebe. He said his college was proud to house the professor since 1990. He admitted the western world had not always warmed up to him, which made him ?suffer oblivion and was not taken seriously?, but ?now he is a great man.?
The panel included three Africans (counting the late Achebe) and three Americans. While the other members offered some useful insights into why TFA had become a phenomenon, many in the audience really wanted to hear Achebe speak.
?I had no idea about any other thing to write when I wrote TFA,? the late Achebe said when asked why he did that work. The timing was also crucial, he said. It was a time that African countries were demanding independence from British imperialism, a time when Europeans were busy painting Africans a little lower than animals as evident in Joyce Cary?s Mr. Johnson and Joseph Conrad?s Heart of Darkness, which the late Achebe once described as one which ?depersonalises a portion of the human race, reducing a great culture to a handful of threats and grunts?.
The late Achebe told the mainly white audience: ?It was a period of great fascination, excitement and hope; we knew all about colonialism, we were living it. We knew about the conversions of our people from the religions of our fathers to that of the visitors. Add all these up you get a society in ferment that was a wonderful time to be alive, it was a wonderful time to write TFA.
?We had something before us; it was a sacred mission, a mandate to restore your name. Up till that time, Africa has received quite a bit of bashing, Africa was presented as one without a voice, but anyone who grew up in my village, for example, knew that the elders of this community were great orators, men who could use words to change a critical situation. Men like my father, I saw them too, who were not faithful to the African religion, so Africa was not without a voice like some people want us to believe, that was a mission we set out to achieve.?
A Kenyan and Professor of English at Princeton University, Simon Gikandi, said the book spoke to African sensibility and in the years following its publication was considered ?a foundational text for African identity?.
It was difficult not to love this old African. Here was a man so revered by the world yet had his root in Africa, with its attendant stigmatisation and stereotypes. The evening wore on with appreciative glances from the audience.
Talking to the late Achebe at the panel review was almost an impossible task, what with the throng of friends and well-wishers wanting to either congratulate him or discuss some salient points in his book; others came for autographs. I motioned to the security detail that I had come all the way from Nigeria with a very urgent message for the late Achebe. The message was communicated to him and for some fleeting seconds he looked down the podium and motioned me to come up.
?You are from Lagos. What do you want?? he asked frankly.
The impossible had become a reality. So much news had been made out of the fact that he declined the title of the Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR) in protest of the state of affairs in Nigeria. With a new administration in place then, which pledged commitment to the rule of law, I asked if he would receive such honour?
He thought for a while and said: ?I cannot say if I will take it or not, at least not right now. I am still studying events back home and I cannot give you any definite answer now.?
But would he consider it?
?Yes, I will consider it,? he replied.
On the evening of the panel discussion, the late author was treated to a sumptuous dinner. Watching all the attention being given to him, one could not but wonder if there was still any place in his heart for Nigeria.
?Do you know why I am abroad?? he asked, his face full of sadness. Momentarily, he stopped picking from the plate containing some stick meat and pies, lowered his head and spoke almost in a whisper, barely distinguishable from the noise of the diners.
He said: ?My reason for staying abroad is medical; it is not because I fancy America; I am not here because of the reason other people come here (greener pastures). The fact is that I can?t be home now, but here I can work and live (with adequate facilities to aid his mobility). I will love to be home someday. I will.?
Throughout the dinner, he was still discussing TFA, but his face lit up when you mentioned Arrow of God, a novel he wrote in 1964. ?So you have read Arrow of God, thank you. Do you know that I wrote that book as an upgrade on Things Fall Apart? It is a very good book.?
?And the language is elevated too,? I said. He agreed, nodding his head.
He told me of the relevance of Okonkwo, the protagonist of TFA, to the present world. ?I had just finished a lecture and was sitting in my office when a Caucasian (White) boy came in. He asked if he can talk to me and I said fine. He sat down and looked me in the eye before saying ?That man Okonkwo is my father? I was stunned. But he repeated it two times, ?That man Okonkwo is my father?. That boy was not even an African but Okonkwo speaks to his situation with his own real father,? he said.
He added: ?My students are very emotional about this. We saw the masculine side of Okonkwo and we also saw him at a point displaying his softer side when he tried to look for his daughter who had been carried away. When he died, my students were very sad. They felt he was only trying to defend his culture from invaders which anyone could have done too.
?Okonkwo was fighting to defend his culture, but he didn?t really know the culture. From all he did, there was a silent voice also telling him to remember compassion, mercy. Getting him out of this culture makes it possible for this culture to renegotiate its future.?
On Okonkwo?s perceived masculinity and disdain for anything feminine, he said: ?That is one aspect that has often troubled me. Some of my readers think I support Okonkwo?s outlook on females, some even almost accused me of beating my wife. Let me say that the book does not represent me in anyway.?
Many scholars who came to the event that night were truly amazed at meeting the late Achebe. ?There are so many people who want to talk to me. I think I have done enough for you. Now, I must try and eat my food before seeing others. I will not answer any question again,? he said and turned away to greet another fan, after which he was wheeled away into a corner where he could eat without distractions.