• Tuesday, July 16, 2024
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The Achebe phenomenon

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 With the avalanche of eulogies streaming in since the announcement of the death of Chinua Achebe on March 21, 2013, one is almost at a loss as to where to begin. What can be said about Achebe that has not been said? It’s hard to find. No wonder my brother Max Amuchie wrote that “there is nothing to be said about Achebe’s accomplishments in, and contribution to, African literature and post-colonial political consciousness that has not been said”. Yet, I believe that there is no description of Achebe that can capture the whole essence of that great man of letters. Achebe was a colossus. As the tributes continue to pour in, this fact becomes even clearer. It is like that story about ten blind men trying to describe the elephant, or different literary scholars with diverse orientations trying to interpret a particular piece of literature. Moreover, as Achebe himself observes in his magnum opus, Things Fall Apart, it is only the man who does not have the gift of oratory that gives the excuse that his kinsmen have said everything there is to say. So…

While the debate raged over a portion of Achebe’s parting gift to Nigeria and the world, entitled There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, I refused to be dragged into it, partly because it was getting real dirty. But a day after the announcement of the man’s death, a thought came to me: what if Achebe hadn’t written that book before he died? It was then I realised it, and I wrote thus on my facebook wall: “Just like a few ancients who were blessed with that rare gift of fore-knowledge of their death, he gathered his children around him and whispered into their ears: THERE WAS A COUNTRY. And while they were still trying to decipher it, he took a bow and left the stage. Now they have something to think about for the rest of their lives…”

At that moment, I had no doubt, nor do I have any now, that Achebe sensed the end was near, and he knew he owed the world his personal account of the Nigeria/Biafra Civil War, a war in which he was a very active participant, a war that virtually severed his cordial relationship with his great friends across the other side, particularly John Pepper Clark and Wole Soyinka, and ultimately cut down in mid-morning his bosom friend Christopher Okigbo. Anyone who has read JP Clark’s poems “The Casualties” and “I Can Look the Sun in the Face” may be able to get an idea of the extent of the damage done.

Looking back, I am inclined to believe that Achebe was no ordinary man. He was indeed a phenomenon. He was one of the few who have treaded these paths whose ‘chi’ imbued with extraordinary wisdom. He perfectly fitted the description of that proverbial elder who could see while squatting what a child could not see even from atop an iroko tree. He was both a prophet and a diviner. His prophesy about a possible coup in the country in A Man of the People (1966) did not take long to materialise, and we’re still out there in search of a solution to his divination 29 years ago that the trouble with Nigeria is “the failure of leadership”.

Achebe was a man who said yes, and his ‘chi’ concurred. His paths were clearly mapped out. And he followed his heart when it mattered most – dropping out of medical school at the risk of losing his scholarship just so he could pursue his dreams. His manner of writing reveals a born storyteller, no doubt, yet there is evidence that Achebe’s course of study helped to shape, sharpen and fine-tune his raw talents, without which he might have still made a good writer but might never have stood out the way he did. His life was a manifestation of his own aphorism in No Longer at Ease about greatness and the iroko tree: “You cannot plant greatness as you plant yams or maize. Whoever planted an iroko tree – the greatest tree in the forest? You may collect all the iroko seeds in the world, open the soil and put them there. It will be in vain. The great tree chooses where to grow and we find it there, so it is with the greatness in men” Chapter 5 (p. 57).

So, irrespective of what anybody might say about There was a Country, a book, fortunately, I have read cover to cover, I believe it was Achebe’s way of unburdening his heart to the younger generation before joining his ancestors. There, as I said in that facebook post, he played his final role as a responsible father – leaving his children not without a parting word. It was the quintessential Achebe at work. Even if we do not totally agree with everything he said in the book, let’s not forget the saying that posterity may forgive us for not doing something right, but never for not doing anything at all. Achebe’s has done his part; rightly or wrongly, it is now left for posterity to judge.

Perhaps it is also pertinent to remind us that historical interpretations most times are based on a fraction of the evidence, a part of the whole, but so far as the arguments follow where the available material leads, they are valid. The often seemingly divergent conclusions in historical accounts are due to the different angles from which various historians approached the same episode. As Chimamanda Adichie aptly titles her tribute to Achebe at 82, “We remember differently”. And so, for those who think they still have an axe to grind with the late sage for writing that book that they feel he shouldn’t have written, it’s a challenge to write their own personal history of that war and “put the accounts straight”. Adebayo Kareem actually wrote an article, in the heat of that debate, urging Yakubu Gowon, the wartime military head of state, to write his own memoir. I’m waiting to read that book.

Meanwhile, may the soul of “The Eagle on Iroko” find peace, the very thing that eluded him in the country of his birth.

 

CHUKS OLUIGBO

Oluigbo is of the editorial department of BusinessDay, Lagos

 

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