• Wednesday, November 29, 2023
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Achebe: A personal testimony (2)


 It was laughter galore. I continued, this time with mischievous comments: “The world has, indeed, come to an end. Things have fallen apart. How can a woman be calling her husband by the first name, especially in public? How can a woman order her husband back into the bedroom in broad daylight? Okonkwo of Things Fall Apart must be turning in his grave. Who knows whether highly educated women are not on top of their husbands when they want to produce babies?”

The commotion of laughter in this huge living room was still on when Okey rhetorically asked: “C. Don, are you sure you are not already engaged in this sacrilegious practice, even though you are not yet married, let alone to a very educated woman?” I remarked to the audience about Okey who was, as usual, in jeans: “Don’t mind him. Okey is the boy in jeans; the boy wiser than his father.” Ejike, a professor of fisheries, was visibly confused. Okey spoke to him and his wife in particular: “The Boy in Jeans – or The Boy Wiser than His Father – is the title of one of Achebe’s poems in the poetry collection Beware, Soul Brother. You know C. Don is a Nigerian journalist, so he doesn’t give credit to authors!” The dominant issue in the Nigerian print media then was the charge of plagiarism against a foremost journalist and columnist, accused by Kunle Ajibade and Dele Momodu, then two graduate students of literature at the University of Ife, of lifting without acknowledgement whole passages from Thomas Paine’s classic, The Age of Reason. I responded to Okey: “You are a Nigerian journalist, so can you cast the first stone?”

As Achebe and Ejike saw us off, the latter said: “You guys have succeeded in making my place so warm this evening. I have never seen Prof so relaxed, so comfortable with people. You are exceptional. By the way, I have noticed your high intelligence, eloquence and confidence. Feel free to come to my house anytime of the day.” Immediately we got to a poorly-lit spot on the way back to the hotel, Okey and I began to hum, sing and dance: “This vice chancellor who has at least two beautiful, tall, fair-skinned and elegant daughters has given us a rain cheque. Providence has buttered our bread!” A fierce argument soon erupted between Okey and myself over who would first approach which girl; we had just caught a glimpse of these girls for the first time and didn’t know anything about the damsels except that they should be the daughters of our host!

Achebe saw beyond our exuberance which he said reminded him of the rambunctious Christopher Okigbo whom Michael J. C. Echeruo described in the foreword to Pol Ndu’s Songs of a Seer as “the most verbally exciting African poet writing in English”. Through the Achebe instrumentality, I was offered editorial committee membership of Okike. And when Achebe decided to retire from the journal, he sought my opinion on the choice of the editor. I wasted no time in suggesting Emmanuel Obiechina, the biggest name in the English Department at UNN then, but he explained that he wanted “a creative mind, a writer, and not necessarily a scholar”. He went on: “I have Chinweizu in mind, but he loves peripatetic activity; he is itinerant. Okike will remain within the Institute of African Studies at the UNN. I am also considering Ossie Enekwe, head of the Drama Department who is a very good poet, novelist and scholar. But Ossie doesn’t seem to have much confidence in his tremendous abilities.” Ossie, a good friend of mine who obtained three graduate degrees from Columbia University in New York, did suffer diffidence, a result of his combat experience in Biafra which changed him completely. When I sent him a questionnaire on his writing and on Okike which he answered satisfactorily, he still submitted the answers to Achebe for vetting before sending the material to me for publication.

I will ever relish the courtesies Achebe extended to me. At the celebration of his 60th birthday at UNN in March, 1990, he was walking down the hall to perform a certain ceremony when he saw me with Andy Ezeani of Champion Newspapers in an obscure corner and immediately came straight to me, together with his charming wife, and thanked me generously for finding the time to honour him! With the paparazzi swooping on us, he invited Nureeden Farah, Chinweizu and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o to join in the photos we were taking. Sensing I was close to the great writer, Weekend Concord deputy editor Dimgba Igwe, a fantastic professional, sought my assistance for a major interview with the Achebes.

No one could come into contact with Chinua Achebe without fond memories and without learning a few lessons. He was exceedingly infectious in innumerable ways. Among other things, he taught me humility and the need to be embedded in one’s community. He was a global citizen who was treated like a head of state in some African countries he visited, yet he accepted to be the president of the Ogidi Town Union where he was handling such local issues as the location of a primary health centre, renovation of a dilapidated primary school, modernising of village open markets, settlement of disputes between kindred groups and sometimes between peasant farmers and their wives and children! Achebe was a great man, indeed. Part of his greatness derived from the simplicity of his life. He was pre-eminent on the global scene, yet he had his feet planted in the cultural soil of his environment. In the language of Jamaican scholar Michael Thelwell, the universality of Achebe’s oeuvre rested on the integrity and particularity of his sense of community, of his roots, his origins, his identity and his culture.

Achebe may have changed his earthly body on Thursday, March 21, and may have been lowered into the grave on Thursday, May 23, 2013, but he is not really dead. He is immortal. He will continue to guide and speak to generations of humanity from above. Achebe is Africa’s gift to the world. I am honoured to call him a friend, a mentor and an inspiration. Achebe, while on earth, was the conscience of our society, nay, humanity. I say to him: requiescat in pacem.

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Adinuba is head of Discovery Public Affairs Consulting