When I met Achebe, things fell apart
The death last week of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe has summoned forth a torrent of tributes, eulogies and interpretations of his work. All I can add is the story of how I showed up uninvited at his doorstep.
In 1985, the International Herald Tribune sent me to Nigeria for a week to report on the country?s turbulent oil-based economy, even though I had never been to Africa and knew little about it. As part of my preparation, I read Mr. Achebe?s novel ?Things Fall Apart? and his political lament ?The Trouble With Nigeria.? His blunt, concise style of writing impressed me.
I found the capital city of Lagos a sweltering chaos where the main occupation seemed to be standing in traffic and waving merchandise for sale ? food, telephones, toilet paper, whatever you might need. You apparently could accomplish your weekly shopping while stuck in traffic.
Making appointments with government officials was futile. You had to show up at their offices, hand over a name card and wait indefinitely with the other mendicants. In the evenings, I drank Star beer at the Eko Holiday Inn?s poolside bar while chatting with the prostitutes or cynical British salesmen who moaned about the maddeningly un-British way things worked in Africa.
One night, after attending dinner at the home of an American banker, my host instructed one of his Nigerian servants to escort me out to the street and help me find a taxi. While the jovial servant and I were waiting at the roadside for a cab, a soldier jogged up. Without any sort of introduction or warning, the soldier raised his gun like a baseball bat and smashed the butt of it against the servant?s shoulder. The servant crumpled into the dust.
?Don?t move or I?ll kill you,? the soldier shouted, before trotting off again. A taxi appeared. As I settled into the back seat, I struggled to find the right words to thank the servant for his trouble.
At loose ends over the weekend, I decided to seek out Mr. Achebe and solicit his latest insights on Nigeria?s troubles. I knew he worked several hundred miles away at a university in Nsukka, a town in a southeastern Nigeria region devastated by famine and civil war in the late 1960s. In those pre-email days of spotty phone service, it proved impossible to give him any warning of my intended visit.
I bought a domestic-airline ticket from Lagos to Enugu. At the tumultuous Lagos airport, I learned that there were no boarding gates. Instead, you walked out onto the tarmac and wandered among the airplanes until you found one going to your destination. I got the last seat.
From Enugu, I took a taxi some 40 miles to Nsukka, passing scores of rusted cars abandoned by the road. When we reached Nsukka, the driver and I began asking people we encountered in the dusty streets how to find the great author?s home. Each one gesticulated mightily, striving to explain the unexplainable, then got into the taxi to direct us from a position of greater comfort. Before long, several guides were wedged into the taxi with me. Eventually, we found the right house, surrounded by flower beds.
I rapped at the door. Mr. Achebe appeared. ?I have found you!? I gushed.
Mr. Achebe did not share my enthusiasm. He informed me that he was too busy to grant me more than five minutes of his time. Because I did not believe Nigeria could be explained in five minutes, I politely declined.
I slunk back to the taxi, stunned at my defeat. Did he not realize the trouble and expense I had taken to reach his home? Was it not his vocation to explain his homeland to the rest of the world?
Later I realized that, from Mr. Achebe?s perspective, I was an uninvited pest, liable to ask him na?ve questions and quote him out of context. Perhaps he also felt, rightly, that his books spoke for themselves.
James R. (Bob) Hagerty is a Pittsburgh-based reporter for The Wall Street Journal.